I read a book recently that was, eh, so-so.
I’m usually REALLY picky about what I read. My time is precious, being the mom of 4 kids, so I tend to have favorite authors I stick to, and definitely favorite genres. I do venture out to new ones from time to time, too, especially high recommended books.
But we all have those authors, ya know? The ones we gravitate toward and get antsy whenever their next book comes out, eagerly waiting until we can get our hands on it.
This book I read was by one of those FAVORITE authors of mine, but it took me about 3 days to get to chapter 3. VERY rare for me. I found myself forcing myself to read more, convinced it would get better.
It did… at about chapter 8-ish. So I ventured to Amazon to see what other readers were saying. I RARELY read reviews, but thought, I wonder if I’m the only one thinking this? This was a REALLY popular author. It just seemed odd.
I was relieved to see I wasn’t the only one. While she still had plenty of good reviews, almost half of them said the same thing I thought — This was NOT the author’s finest work.
But it was what the reviews noted as their reasoning that surprised me.
A few of them said the same thing as me… a painfully slow/boring beginning.
But many reviews named the CHARACTERS as the problem.
They didn’t like them.
And not for all the reasons as a writer that I hear other “writers” listing to avoid… they weren’t underdeveloped. They weren’t cliche.
Nope, the problem was…
The readers didn’t like them. Like, personally.
They thought the hero was a big pansy who was afraid of hard work.
They thought the heroine was a spoiled brat who cared only for herself.
Reviewers made such cruel remarks as, “It made me want to root for the characters NOT to get their happy ending.”
Ouch. That’s not very nice….
The mom in me started contemplating this, and not for the first time. I, myself, am a fan of putting not-as-likable characters in my books. I’ve had a few contest judges in my pre-published days give comments such as, “I really didn’t like her. If she were real, I would NOT be her friend.”
But here’s the thing. I’m a BIG believer that WE ARE ALL REDEEMABLE. That we are ALL worthy of God’s love. And showing that journey in story is a pretty amazing thing.
In writing, we’re told to give these hard-to-love characters redeemable qualities. We’re told to give them a motivation… the “WHY” to their badness. I agree, on all points.
To the author’s credit, she’d done a marvelous job at that. Both characters had very believable backgrounds, and they both had a few redeemable qualities that at least made ME want to see them happy. This author is an AMAZING writer. She knows her stuff and did it masterfully. (except maybe that yawn-worthy beginning, but I digress!)
So, I’m taking off my writer hat for a minute, and talking to you reader-to-reader, woman-to-woman (well, most of you…), and Jesus-lover-to-Jesus-Lover.
On one hand, I GET IT. When we are immersed in a book, we want to fall in love with the characters. To be sympathetic toward them. To LOVE them. As a reader, I totally get it. I’m right there with you.
But I wondering what it says about us if we so despise a broken character that we can’t root for them to have a happy ending? That, even though it may be in fiction, we don’t even want to see them redeemed?
If your toes are stepped on… I’m sorry.
Think about it though. When you read the Bible and read of the prodigal son… do you root for his father to turn him a way? Are you like the older son, irritated that the slackard gets a party?
Do you look at Saul, who later becomes Paul, and scoff at the idea of him being given a chance after effectively overseeing the slaughter of Christians?
Do you look at Rahab, or Tamar, and look at their lives and the sexual sins they were involved in, and hope they never are happy because they are such horrible people? I mean, have y’all read the story of Tamar lately? The girl pretended to be a temple prostitute to sleep with her father-in-law so she could get pregnant.
Do you look at the adulterous woman whom Jesus refused to condemn, whom he said, “Let him who has no sin cast the first stone.” and hope that she never finds love of happiness again?
God is in the business of REDEMPTION, friends.
My hope, my prayer, is that this attitude of “not liking unlikable people” is saved only for the fiction variety.
But my fear is that, if we scorn the imperfect in fiction, then how much more likely are we to scorn them when they are our flesh and blood neighbor? Or co-worker? Or fellow church member?
We’re told to love our enemy… but do we? We’re such fans of ranting on bullies lately… but have we shown them God’s LOVE and grace, too?
None of us are perfect. I dare say we’ve ALL been mean, annoying, or a bully at some point in our lives. I’ll be the first to raise my hand at that.
We all have motivations. We all have a past that has shaped us into what we are today. God loves us right now. As we are. Imperfections and all.
PRAISE GOD FOR THAT.
Do you find it hard to like more difficult characters? Have you ever looked around to see if that carried over to your “non-fiction” life? Have I stepped too hard on your toes? I’ll be happy to send you some bandaids… :-)
(photo from freedigitalphoto.net)
Terri Bright says
Oh Krista! Very well written!!! You are dead on accurate, woman! When as Christians, we stop trying to find the good in a bad or troubled fictional character, doing so with REAL people is not far behind, if we haven’t started doing so, already. Any time we can’t like a fictional character, we need to step back, and take a personal inventory of the real people in our lives, be brutally honest, and admit if we have started doing that to others. It’s not pleasing to God. Thanks for the reminder that we are to be about wanting redemption for others.
Krista Phillips says
Thanks for your thoughts, Terri! Looking in the mirror and taking that inventory is not always an easy thing, but an important one!
Well said! I’ve always thought along similar lines – if we can’t be forgiving of a fictional character what happens when we find someone just like them in real life? :)
Krista Phillips says
Thanks, Jen! Ya know, we frequently make our characters struggle to forgive… LOL… we should probably listen to that same message, huh!
Elizabeth Maddrey says
Great post, Krista! I’m another who writes about the harder-to-love people and get those same types of comments in my reviews. However, I try hard to believe that readers have different expectations and reactions in their reading lives than their personal ones. So many people want their fiction to be a blissful escape from reality to a place where the problems that have to be dealt with are small, in the grand scheme of things, and relatively easy to overcome. I think they would say they spend enough time and energy loving the hard to love in real life that they don’t want to work hard in their escape reading. To some degree I get that, even as I agree wholeheartedly with your post.
Krista Phillips says
I totally agree, we all have personal tastes when it comes to reading. I have no issue if someone doesn’t care to read about my hard-to-like character.
Story time: When I was in the hospital with my daughter (she was there for 10 months… received a heart transplant… think multiple cardiac arrests and just a REALLY tough time) I started a book by a well-recommended author, during my times of sitting by Annabelle’s bedside. After page 3, I set it aside. The character was a tough, unforgiving one. And she was dying. There was NO WAY I could sit down and read that story. Honestly, it is still on my bookshelf, unread. I needed funny, uplifting stories during that time of my life, not things that would probably make me sad, and I sure didn’t want to read about mean people.
So to that point, I totally agree.
My only worry is, honestly, from my own past experience with reading. I’ve definitely had that character that I didn’t like, and then I started seeing people “like her” in my own life that I really struggled to “love.” It was a moment of realization for me that God calls me to love people, even when they are unlikeable.
Do I always read the book?
No. But I’m praying God changes my heart and gives me sympathy vs distaste.
Elizabeth Maddrey says
It’s definitely a good thing to assess yourself and make sure those aren’t bleeding through! I’ve done that myself on occasion (blended my dislike of a fictional character into real life) – it’s not a pretty realization. And that’s why I totally love your post. I just know with my author hat on, I have to try and give readers a benefit of the doubt because otherwise I read my reviews and cry in a dark room for a week or so ;)
Krista Phillips says
Oh, absolutely!! My writer hat is much different than my reader one, LOL. As a writer, I’m well aware that the characters who have captured my heart, very well may not have the same affect on some readers. I’m super okay with that. After all, in real life, we all gravitate toward certain personality types for our close friends. So as a writer, I totally don’t get my feelings hurt at all!
Lis K says
I just finished reading a book (by an author I like) and although the story was good, it was difficult for me to like the heroine. Since this was Christian fiction, I knew she’d have her redemption moment at the end and I was looking forward to it…but it was too easy for me to set the book down and do something else because the heroine was too prickly for me. I agree with Elizabeth Maddrey’s comment that fiction is an escape for me so I’d prefer to read about a heroine I genuinely like. I appreciate your post, though, because it makes me stop and assess myself to make sure I’m not discounting people around me. Thanks for your post!
Krista Phillips says
I totally read for an escape too!! Right there with you! We DO want to root for our heroine. It’s natural and normal. I still just wonder at the idea of us being more willing to root for the good girl to find happiness over the lost girl to find redemption. I think it is our human nature that picks the good girl. Goodness, I do the same thing! But I guess in my journey with Jesus lately, he’s been convicting me of that. Which is more important, for the lost to be redeemed or for the found to be happy? Which is more a celebratory moment? Which should I yearn for more?
I’ll be super honest to say, many times it’s for the good girl.
But I’m thinking God is trying to prod my heart to deeper.
Even in my escape fiction:-)
(personally, my first book featured a hard character, but she was already “redeemed” and was struggling to find her path. Most people loved her, a few did not. I’m totally okay with that!)
Elizabeth Ridout says
Wow, I think it is important for everyone who can to read this. It is very easy to allow our views of people in our day to day lives be shaped by our opinions of similar personality types in fiction books. It seems absurd to think that the line between real life and fiction can be so hard to see, but really when you think about it, most of us are taught about people and their faults as we grow up, reading books. When we experience those types in our real lives, it is almost natural to refer back to those characters and decide too quickly that they should not have any redeemable qualities and cast any prospect of friendship or courtesy aside.
Krista Phillips says
Absolutely Elizabeth! Well said!! Books do have an impact, whether we think they do or not. (just like music and movies do…)
Kathleen Y'Barbo says
Great comments so far. Identifying with characters is something the reader must do. Liking them? Yes, that should happen eventually, but depending on the character’s story arc, that may not happen from the beginning. Identification, though? Yes, definitely.
And I totally agree with the issue of trying to read certain stories–and characters–during difficult times. During a particularly hard time in my life, there was no way I could read anything but upbeat stories. I had enough of my own drama and just wanted to escape to somewhere light and fluffy. Those books saved many a dark day.
Just one more thing…I don’t know who this author is nor does it matter. However, because publishing is a collaborative business where the house gets the final say, sometimes the book that is published does not resemble the one the author turned in. I know this from personal experience. So please don’t judge the author–not that I’m hearing you are. Maybe someday he/she will get rights to that book back and edit it the way it was meant to be edited and then release it as an indie book. Like I might have done. Theoretically. ;)
Krista Phillips says
yup, I agree, by the end, I personally want to see the redemption. It doesn’t have to be a grand salvation plan or anything, but I’m a “happily ever after” kinda girl… I wanna end on the upbeat! LOL.
Interesting thought about the collaborative part of publishing. I totally agree, however I’d be thoroughly shocked if that was the case. This *ahem* author is pretty well known and publishes A LOT. All of her other books have been AMAZING. And this was too, but there was a definite difference in how it was written. I think she was trying to add an element of suspense/surprise and used the first chapters to give us hints, but I just don’t think it had the effect she was going for. (None of her other books had this type of writing in it.) That said, the reviews were much different than all her other books, so at least if *I* was the writer, I’d be like, OHHHhhh yeah that didn’t work:-)
That’s the great thing about being established though. I LOVE her books and will be rushing to get her next one still. And I ended up enjoying this one very much too… just after chapter 8, LOL.
Merrillee Whren says
Krista, loved this post. You hit me right where I’m writing. My editor told me my heroine seemed bitter and that I should make her more likeable. I didn’t think she was bitter, but judgmental. I like my characters to have a large character arc.Unfortunately, too many of the readers who read my type of books don’t want to have characters who need to learn a big lesson. I don’t mind characters who have a lot to learn. What turns me off is when characters continually make bad decisions to the point that I no longer want to read their stories. I do have to care about the characters to keep reading.
Krista Phillips says
Absolutely! There are definitely going to be readers who don’t care for it, and IMO, sometimes we just can’t please everyone. I think the key is to make sure their motivation, the REASON why they are bitter, is clear in order to make readers more empathetic. I’ve also learned, in writing my own sorta-hard-to-like characters, that giving them a few fun redeeming qualities that endears them helps too:-)
I actually made that mistake in my first book, Sandwich with a Side of Romance. The “villian” was the hero’s at the time girlfriend. I made her pretty bad, but she had a whole backstory as to WHY she was how she was. But in the original version, she had a POV and readers got to see her struggle. In edits, I took her POV out at the advice of my editor. It was a good move, except what I didn’t do is weave back in her motivation. So it just left this mean, rude, bitter girflfriend who was just evil. NO one liked her and everyone wanted to see her get what she deserved.
Personally, I know her more because of that deleted POV. I want to see her redeemed. Someday… I will write her story. Livy WILL have her redemption. *stomping foot*
Andrea Cox says
Krista, wonderful article with great points.
For me, it’s easy to differentiate between fiction and non-fiction. There’s no carry-over effect on negativity, except trying to avoid it in real life. Now, if I learn something positive, I try to apply it to my life. And reading the Bible, for me, is different than reading fiction, because it’s non-fiction. Paul’s is actually one of my favorite stories because of his transformation and how dedicated he ended up being for the cause of Christ. I think it would have been more difficult to connect with him, though, if there had been more chapters on the things he did against Christians before revealing his transformation. We’re given just enough information to see how terrible he was prior to salvation, but that took less than ten percent of his story to tell. Plus, it shows how dedicated he was to his cause, which then was the same degree of passion for the good side once he changed.
As for characters I don’t like, I can tolerate them if there is some little something right up front (or pretty close to that) I either like about them or see hope that they’ll change in the end. If it’s one of the main two characters, even if you’re not supposed to like them at the beginning, there should be some quality about them that is likable, or that gives us hope of liking them. This isn’t just about the happily ever after. It’s about the journey to get there. And that begins with characters we can identify with. If the characters are rotten to the core with no good qualities at all, I tend not to like them because I can’t identify with them. Even at my worst, I’ve got qualities that are likable. For example, before I became a Christian, I was a liar and no one knew when to believe me. But I still picked flowers for my mom, which showed how much I loved her. Once I became a Christian at age seven, God helped me learn how to stop lying and earn people’s trust again. It was a process, but one that saw hope from the beginning (picking flowers revealed a good quality in a sinful child). I think the same should be said of the characters in books we write, especially if we want our readers to connect with them and read their complete stories.
Now, I have written a character that I didn’t like at first, but I began to see glimmers of hope for her very early on. In a screenplay contest, this character got the compliment of “challenging an actress straight through the awards season.” It’s always tough when I reread the beginning of that script, and I imagine it will be hard when I rewrite it into manuscript format. But I know there’s hope for her because of some little qualities that I see from the beginning.
Krista Phillips says
Andrea, I totally agree that our characters need redeeming qualities!! Because even at our worst, we are made in the image of Christ, and we are LOVABLE. And it’s important to see those things, and to show them in our fiction when we write.
I guess I’m different. When I read fiction, I escape into their world. In my mind, it becomes real to me, even for just those hours I’m reading. So yes… if I have an ill feeling toward a character, I’d most likely have that same feeling toward a real person that acted the same in real life. We are all different though, and I tend to make my family crazy when I am reading, because I hear NOTHING they say. Our house could be on fire and I’d have no clue because I was in another time/place, LOL.
Narelle Atkins says
Krista, great post! I loved the honesty in your post, and in all the comments. The backlash from her fans in the reviews could relate to the author moving outside her brand. The cover, book description etc. may not have provided enough clues that the story was different in tone to her previous books. Maybe her loyal readers expected a sweet story with lovable characters, and this book just didn’t meet their expectations. I like lattes and cappuccinos. If I order a latte and I’m given a cappuccino, I’m probably not going to enjoy the cappuccino as much I normally would because I’m thinking about how I really wanted a latte. A simplistic example, but I believe our unmet expectations can impact our reading experience. It’s possible the reviews may have been different if the book was written by a debut author.