Thursday, October 29, 2009

I think I must be going about this the wrong way.

Safely home after the Authors After Dark conference (details later), I found some less-than-favorable reviews for the Lightworld/Darkworld books. Which got me thinking, as all negative reviews do. I've said this in the past, and I genuinely mean this, that if I read a negative review that actually has something to say ("This book sucks," etc. doesn't give me much to ruminate over), I think about it for a while and can usually see where they're coming from. In fact, I usually take more away from negative reviews than positive ones with gentle criticisms in them, because I am, if nothing else, an ego snowball rolling downhill at breakneck speeds, crushing little skiing villages in my wake and collecting them up like some nightmare Katamari, and so the valid critiques offered in a good review are usually lost in the highly immature celebration dance of "Yay, someone liked it."

Yes, there is actually a dance.

The negative reviews I've been seeing for Queene of Light and Child of Darkness seem to have a couple of issues in common, the one that concerns me today being that the protagonists are unlikeable somehow. I am not unfamiliar with this criticism. When I was writing Blood Ties, the number one complaint in most negative reviews was that the reader did not like Carrie. And they usually didn't like her for exactly the same reasons that I did like her, but I was able to write that off as a "to each his own" kind of situation. Now that it's cropping up in my new series, I'm thinking a little bit more about the notion of "liking" a character. As in, how much should a reader expect to like a character, and how much effort can an author expend to write a character who is likeable before the book becomes unrealistic?

I started making up a mental brain list of books I've read where I either didn't like the main character. Not hated them, because I don't think I've ever read something I would consider a good book with a protagonist I absolutely hated. But I came up with a list of characters I was definitely "meh" on. I realized that, for the most part, I've never truly thought a Stephen King protagonist was someone I would care to meet in real life, and I find Neil Gaiman's main characters pretty obnoxious. The latter saddened me, because I'm fairly sure that Neil Gaiman's main characters are all some subtle variation on Neil Gaiman. In some of my favorite books, I wouldn't call the main character someone I liked, as in, I do not daydream about one day walking through the mall with them, swinging our shopping bags and sipping on Jamba Juice smoothies. But none of the books on my list, aside from Gaiman, were what I would call fantasy or romance.

In fact, when I started thinking of books where my enjoyment was directly affected by how I viewed the main character, my thoughts on the subject took a sharp left turn into genre town. I can't even begin to think of all the romances I stopped reading because I could not like the heroine or hero. And fantasy, well, I've definitely had some wall-banger episodes directly linked to the preciousness of fantasy protagonists. Readers of romance and fantasy typically want to insert themselves into the story, to have those feelings of falling in love or having an adventure. There's nothing wrong with that, it's basically what the genre is there for. It's hard to lose yourself to those feelings when you're thinking, "I would never do or say that."

Still, at what point does one cross the line from being true to the character they've created and just delivery fan service? I can think of a couple of series where the main character wasn't necessarily doing what I would in various situations, and I was okay with it. I would go online and find out that other readers felt the same way, and then the next book or two would come out and the character had done a complete 180, usually having to do with the love interest or number of love interests. And when I and other readers got what we thought we wanted, we complained that the series was "going downhill." Looking back, the authors weren't doing what was right for the characters, they were doing what the fans wanted. I firmly believe this. And once they did that, the character was no longer the same person, and the series wasn't as enjoyable.

I think there has to be some kind of a difference between a character that a reader doesn't like, or can't connect with, and a character whose actions make no sense within the context of the story. Both characters are unlikeable, but one is unlikeable because he or she has a personality trait that the reader can't get along with, and the other is unlikeable because they're stupid or unaware and make the story less enjoyable overall. I don't know exactly where that line is, and I'm not going to pretend that my characters are firmly on one side or the other. But it is something for writers to think about. Should we try to create characters the readers will like, or should we use the ones that just seem to show up and fit into the story?

Tomorrow, I might have more thoughts on this, and a small update on the vampire book I'm writing for Mira.

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