Friday, August 15, 2008
Getting away with murder
A writer can do almost anything in fiction, and I do mean almost anything. Want to have a character who’s a rapist or pedophile or murderer and still make me like that character? It’s been done. Want to have characters who are invulnerable or gorgeous or hypertalented and still make me ask to read more? That’s been done too – and I’m a very critical reader.
The writers who get away with this do so by balancing their characters out – either with other traits for these characters or by other features in their writing (such as style, as in Richard Adams’s The Girl in a Swing). There are many ways to make this work for me, but in this post I’ll describe four explanations that don’t work.
1. It’s justified on page 30.
If the character’s unbelievable or repulsive traits are on Page 1, it’s going to be very difficult for me to either suspend disbelief or suppress nausea long enough to get to the part where the author shows why this character is worth reading about.
2. There’s a real-life precedent.
On the whole, I like critiquing. Not only is it flattering to be asked for feedback, it’s a learning experience that goes both ways. I have to think of why something works or doesn’t work, and this helps me with my own writing as well.
The exception to this was when I once mentioned why a character’s behavior didn’t seem plausible to me. Specifically, it was an antagonist who found the heroine attractive and knew she was deeply in love with him, but refused to have sex with her. No reason given – he wasn’t highly principled or gay or living in medieval times or married to a Mafioso’s daughter.
The author replied that she knew someone who had actually behaved like that. Because of that, she took it for granted that the character’s behavior was plausible, and she didn’t see why I had difficulty with it. And since that character came straight from real life, she was very reluctant to change him.
(Digression : With my own writing, I’ve found that characters, events and conversations in real life don’t translate directly into good fiction. I’ve shared jokes in real life that had me cracking up, but when I tried one of those with my characters, it sounded odd – wooden, almost.)
3. Other writers have done it too.
Unless the other writers were writing the same kind of story at the same time, this rarely works as a justification. I like long paragraphs describing the characters’ beauty in sex-and-shopping books, but not in fantasy short stories.
4. The gods created it this way.
When critiquing a story once, I mentioned a concern I had with the characters, and the author explained it away by saying that the gods were responsible for that. This wasn’t too strange an explanation, since the story was a fantasy in which gods featured prominently, and the characters’ unrealistic traits were ones the gods had given them. But that didn’t address the issue. Whoever had created the characters, there was a problem with them.
Besides, the author was writing the story, so “the gods did it” was really “the author did it”. If a critiquer points out a concern in the story, saying, “But I meant to do that” rarely makes them reply, “Oh, well, in that case there’s no problem.”