“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready.’” – David Mitchell
I’ve begun to notice that I’m doing something I really shouldn’t be doing. When people tell me they don’t like my characters, I get defensive.
I’m going to give myself a bit of a pass on this one, because it’s an instinct a lot of writers share. Despite the fact that they’re fictional, we can’t help but grow to like our characters. We spend a lot of time making them who they are, making them feel organic, and getting to know them.
So if someone says something like, “I think this character’s a jerk,” of course you’re going to defend your character! But if you’re looking for honest feedback, this isn’t the way to get it.
Cue the long-winded personal anecdote. Ahem.
Last week, I presented a flash fiction piece to my writers’ group. It was a story about a guy named Bartrum who starts undergoing some pretty radical changes, but would rather not think about it. Here’s a snippet:
“…Bartrum’s face seemed to be drooping. Which, in and of itself, wasn’t all that surprising; his face had been drooping for the past five years or so, as faces invariably do when they grow older. But this was a little more dramatic—in fact, when he’d gone into town to buy some eggs that morning, people stopped and stared at him. When he glanced in the mirror in the bathroom in the grocery store he understood why: his chin now ended in a flabby disc somewhere near his belly button. It looked like someone had grabbed hold of the skin and given it a good yank.
Hmm. Now when had that happened?”
And then, the next sentence:
“Bartrum thought he should probably be concerned, but mostly he chalked it up to old age and went on with his day.”
When it came time to critique, my fellow group members were pretty much unanimous: They didn’t see how they were supposed to identify with a guy who’s pretty much melting, yet does nothing about it.
My first instinct was to disagree, because I happen to find Bartrum hilarious. After all, I’ve known a lot of people (myself included) who would rather walk around with prolapsed chin flab than pay a hospital bill. At that moment, I really wanted to defend Bartrum.
I’m glad I didn’t. Because when you start arguing with those who are trying to help you improve your work, it kills conversation. When you act like your characters are real people, the actual real people around you are less inclined to be honest with you. That doesn’t help you improve your characters. And isn’t that why you’re there in the first place?
So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to accept that not everyone likes the same things we like. We’re going to understand that just because someone doesn’t like our character, that doesn’t mean the character is poorly written. And we’re also going to consider the fact that our character, in all likelihood, needs some work.
Sounds good? I’m ready when you are.
Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living in New York (upstate, not the city). His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Five on the Fifth, and Dark Fire Fiction. To read more of Kyle’s work, subscribe to his monthly email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.