Thursday, July 10, 2014

These Characters Are Inauthentic Because They Don’t Poop

Caitlin here. We’ve all reads books that suspend disbelief to the point we can’t enjoy them. There’s a strange plot point that maybe we could believe if there was more supporting evidence—but there isn’t. There’s a character action that’s hard to swallow, but, perhaps if we had known this one little additional fact we would have bought it. 

These are the issues that good critiques partners bring up.

However, I think, as a writer, you need to be careful not to instantly address every single issue that a skeptical reader might have. 

My husband and I joke that, on some level, almost every book we’ve ever read is inauthentic because they never discuss a character’s bowel movements. Yeah, I know, it’s a little gross, but think about it. Surely these characters go to the bathroom!? Why isn’t it mentioned!? Why would the author leave that out!? 

Obviously, I’m being a bit facetious, but I’ve definitely encountered readers and writers who have questions like these about extremely miniscule, often logistical, aspects of a story. Don’t get me wrong, I like to discuss the intricacies of books, so I enjoy these types of questions during book clubs. And, in regard to my own work, I’m thankful for all of these questions because every single one helps me think more deeply about the project. However, it took me a while to realize that just because someone wondered about X it doesn’t necessarily mean I should throw in a couple of sentences addressing X. Instead, I need to parse out what is vital to telling the story from what is just extra information and background noise.

But this is incredibly tough. I’ll admit, I’m still figuring out how to make these calls. How do you handle this issue?  How do you decide what information is imperative to keeping the reader in your corner and what is extraneous and just clogs up the flow of the story?

Dan: Wow, Caitlin, what a hook! But I think you've raised two good discussion topics: character believability and reader feedback. It's actually a good sign when you have readers challenging you over a character detail, because it means they're close enough to that character to care about it. One believability issue I've seen while critiquing -- and been called on in my own writing -- is when a character changes his or her mind too easily. When a character has a strong motivation, and that motivation suddenly changes, there needs to be a damn good reason for it. Maybe a whole pile of reasons. Think about it: in real life, when two people disagree on a subject they feel strongly about (such as politics or religion), neither one is easily swayed to the other's point of view. Fiction should reflect this.

The other question that Caitlin raises is this: when should an author follow (or ignore) reader feedback? Not every piece of advice offered will be gold. It's your story, after all, and you don't have to please everyone. You'll never do that anyway. Choosing the right critique partner will help: if the advice comes from a fellow author whose work you know and respect, you're more likely to value it. My day job happens to be genetics research, and when we're trying to publish something we face this issue all the time. An editor will send our manuscript to 2-3 qualified researchers at other institutions for peer review. Those reviewers will identify major and minor issues with the work. Then, it's up to us to decide which points to address, and which to push back on. It's a balancing act, to be sure, but so is all of writing.

Karlie: This is something I struggle with a lot. Yes, we want to see this character living life, so we can relate to him. But...really, what little details are necessary?
I tend to land on the far side of either end of the scale. Either I'm going way overboard, or I don't put nearly enough in. But like you said, Caitlin, it's such a fine line to walk sometimes I make myself blind trying to see it. So what I do is try to make it significant to the story itself - is the tension in the room crackling the air? Excuse me, I need to find the restroom.
Does he want to prolong her walking out the door? Bend down slowly, pull his socks on one by one, thinking frantically of something to say that might make her stay.
Things like this - that can be woven into the narrative - can serve a dual purpose. Give us the tidbits of life that make the character real, and add to the emotion and tension of a scene.

Lisa: I agree with Karlie. If the detail isn't relevant to the story itself then I don't include it. With that said, I do try to find a way to marry minute real-life details into something relevant in the story. A while back I realize that my characters never got sick (okay some get deathly sick, but I mean run of the mill sick). So, I gave my next character allergies and wove them into the fabric of the story. The book I'm currently working on has my female main character with anxiety that gets bad enough she will throw up. While I don't think having your character gross readers out by pooping "on camera" will reel your readers in :D, I do think there are always ways to add more realism to our characters' lives. But some things just aren't going to move the scene forward, nor the plot. I once read a story that had a character cooking broccoli. Twice. I was so bored. The author could have had readers enter the scene later. I once read that the best way to keep readers intrigued is to enter the scene late and leave early. This keeps readers from having to read extraneous details like cooking broccoli and pooping, and I'm all for that!

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