Books, characters, critiquing, writing

Betraying Your Characters

I don’t usually write book reviews, but occasionally, on Goodreads, I’ll leave a review if I really have something that I think is worth saying. Something positive, that is. A lifetime of having “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” ingrained into me prevents me from leaving negative reviews. If I don’t like a book, I usually just don’t talk about it.

Until the last book I reviewed. I gave it one star, and I left a heartfelt, decidedly un-positive review. Why? What made me feel so strongly about this particular book that I had to say something?

Some people who reviewed it said that the author betrayed her readers, but it wasn’t that that left me with such a sour taste in my mouth.

The author betrayed her characters.

This was the third book in a trilogy. She had spent the first two books building up her characters in a certain way, and then, in this final book, she completely ripped them out of their old selves – the ones she still included. Some characters who had been built up in such a way as to expect them to play a major role in this book just faded from the pages. Certain relationships that had been teased at – well, I was going to say that they fizzled, but in fact, they weren’t even there. And the characters that did carry over?

They were not themselves.

Not the main character, and not the secondary characters.

And the story? It was flat. I can only imagine because the author had to fight with her characters every step of the way, forcing them to conform to her vision instead of letting them be themselves, and their revenge was to make the story boring.

To me, as a writer, this is one of the worst things you can do – force your characters to act, well, out-of-character. It is a betrayal of them, and ends up being a betrayal of yourself as well, because, of course, the characters have sprung from you.

I make no secret of the fact that all of my stories are character-driven rather than plot-driven. To me, it is the characters that make the plot – people interacting with each other and with events. So perhaps I make a bigger deal of this than it really is. An improbable plot? I can shrug off with a laugh. Wrenching your characters out of themselves and turning them into puppets?

Outrage. Outrage to the point where I’m not sure I’ll ever read anything new from this author again, even though I’ve enjoyed almost all of her other books. If her own characters can’t trust her, how can I?

And so I had to vent, even to the point of leaving a negative review (sorry Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, and all my aunts and uncles – sometimes you just gotta say something not-nice). (Although you will notice I didn’t link to the review – you can find it if you look, but I’m not going to make it too easy. I still have some principles!)

What are the writing crimes you cannot forgive in yourself or any other author?

12 thoughts on “Betraying Your Characters”

  1. I was just discussing this very "crime" with my writing group. One of our members is revising her novel and feared she was betraying one of her characters at the end. (We didn't think she was, but were glad that she was aware of it.)The biggest writing crime in my book is bad spelling and grammar. An occasional typo happens to everyone, but more consistent errors boil my blood. In fiction, I can't stand when an author inserts a highly dramatic event (an accident, for instance) just to move the narrative along. If a writer needs fireworks to keep her story going, her story is probably not the one for me.

  2. Wow! You can't help but wonder why the author did this, because I agree with you that she/he must have had to fight with the characters the whole way. Did something happen in her/his life? Is she/he embittered with writing? Sad.

  3. I'm a character author, too, and it drives me nuts when characters don't act themselves. There can be good, solid reasons a character isn't acting like him or herself, but I would expect something in the plot to explain WHY–something wrong, something they just suffered, something they're trying to hide and they're struggling with it. Then you realize they haven't changed, maybe they're just coping. But to completely ignore who your characters are? Ouch. I actually wrestled with this for a long, long time with a couple of my characters. I have a book coming out soon called Rising, and I'm working on the second book now. But as I was first planning Rising Book 2, I realized I needed to tell it from the points of view of two particular characters–and it TERRIFIED me. It terrified me because they have so much pain, so much stuff to deal with, and because I do not agree with the way they do things or handle situations sometimes. I mean, sure, I've written plenty of characters who did things I didn't like or agree with, but this was on the most gigantic scale ever. I worried, "If I write this, with these characters doing things I do not agree with and maybe not ever thinking they are wrong for doing them…how does that reflect on me?" But I had to come to the point where I realized: that IS the point. These two might be a more extreme case than I'm used to, but they are still not me. They cannot be me. I wouldn't want them to be; how boring would be if all of my characters acted and thought the same way? SO boring. I cannot force my opinions and morality on characters. I have to do justice to THEM, to their story, to their pain, to their emotions and the way they handle them, or they will not be themselves. And that would be a horrible betrayal to them and to their story. So I got over my fear and dove into their story, the way they need to tell it.

  4. Ooh, consistent bad grammar drives me nuts, too. I read so much growing up that most grammar is instinctive for me, just picked up from books (also spelling, which is why I still favor (or favour) British spelling, because I grew up on British and Canadian lit), so I know there are a few traps I still fall into without realizing it, but anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a writer NEEDS to study such things. Part and parcel of the package. No room for compromise!

  5. The Goodreads link goes to my profile – it's the only one-star review (and also one of the more recent reviews) I've done, so it's easy to find. I am not trying to be super mysterious about it, I am mostly being over-cautious so I don't fall into the trap of bashing this author specifically, instead of the "writing crime" committed in the book. Does that make sense?

  6. Interesting point – this book took significantly longer, and the author openly admitted to having difficulty with the writing process, than originally expected. I had guessed that perhaps her characters rose up in revolt against what they were being made to do, and therefore every step of the writing process was a long, weary battle – but maybe it was just that there was something else going on in the author's life to make the story, and the characters, not matter anymore. Very, very sad, either way.

  7. Yes, this, exactly!I read something recently where a fellow writer said, quite matter-of-factly, that all our characters are a reflection to a certain degree of us, their creators, and I was rather surprised at how many people agreed with her. Because I go to great lengths to make sure I am not bleeding myself over into my characters, but allowing them to remain authentic to THEMSELVES, no matter how at odds my principles, beliefs, or even personality might be to them.Now certainly I think a person's worldview affects everything he or she writes, just as it affects everything he or she does, but that's different – very different – from every character being a piece of you in some small way. I have characters I only WISH were part of me, and then there are those that are utterly foreign, and I have no idea how they got into my head, and I rather wish they'd get out, but the only way to exorcise them is to write them out, so down they go onto paper.We writers are a funny breed, aren't we? Do you suppose ancient bards used to have these kinds of discussions?

  8. That is so tough at the end of the trilogy. I'm sure you were extra mad because you had already invested so much time and love.I write characters/plot. For me, it's the chicken and the egg. Sometimes a character gets formed to fit a plot, many times the plot is formed to fit the characters. I try not to betray one or the other.

  9. "I rather wish they'd get out, but the only way to exorcise them is to write them out, so down they go onto paper."Oh, my gosh, this EXACTLY. There have been some scenes I've written that I would never, ever have envisioned myself written–because if I didn't write them, they wouldn't get out of my head! As soon as they were out on paper, my brain got a reprieve. LOL, I can just imagine ancient bards having similar discussions. :D

  10. Yes, if this had been the first book in the trilogy, or even the second (or if the books themselves had been shorter, ha!), I might have endured it more gracefully. Coming after the author'd already spent so much time establishing the world and building the characters, and I'd read both the previous books twice so I almost felt they were friends? Very infuriating.

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