Friday, 20 August 2010

Whose Character Is This Anyway...?

He’s fleshed out in my head. Perfectly. A Gene Krupa look-a-like. Check. A big guy, a thug. Check. Dark hair. Check. Sleepy eyes. Yes. Full lips. Oh, yes. Age? Forty. Good. That’s him. That’s the hero of my story. Ready, set, go.


What’s that? Betty says he needs to be younger. He should be in his thirties. His thirties, she says? Okay, okay. That’s doable. Thirties it is. Once again, hands poised over the keys, I’m ready to begin.


What now, Betty? Oh, he should be more refined, not quite so thuggish. A step up from a thug, perhaps just a gentlemanly mobster. Yes, my mind calculates. I can see it. Of course. Drop the street talk, let him be more educated. Own a joint, not just work it. Back to work I go.

Well, hell.

Excuse me? What difference does it make if he has a hairy chest or not? Betty, you ARE joking, right? What’s wrong with a smooth chest? Ah. Betty thinks hairy chests are sexy. She would never be attracted to a smooth chested man.

Not being a selfish author, I would never dish up a character to Betty that she wouldn’t be attracted to. After all, Betty is my female eye, my pulse on the sex appeal of my book.

By now, my character has been transformed—but only slightly, just minor tweaks here and there—but he’s still recognizable, still looks like Gene Krupa. Hell, though, with Betty’s alterations, he IS Gene Krupa. But I can still pull it off, produce a gangster-type hero who still fits pretty much into my original vision. Who knows? The changes may make him even better.

Hold your horses.

Now Betty disapproves of my character’s girlfriend, says she’s too young for my Gene Krupa look-a-like. I have to take Betty’s opinion into serious consideration. Betty is a mature woman, after all, whose age group will encompass a good deal of my reading audience. So now my character’s girlfriend has been changed to be a woman closer to his age.

But who knew?

Now Mary, another reader, weighs in. Mary is younger than Betty, and feels passionately that the character should be with a younger woman. Not only that, but she insists that the heroine be a virgin. The hero, Mary is convinced, would never marry a woman who was not virginal. And Mary feels SO strongly about this issue that she says she will not read the book if the heroine is not a young virgin, and, furthermore, will not speak to me anymore it this demand isn’t met.

Literary blackmail. Betty and Mary become mortal enemies. Who wins? Does a coin toss now decide my hero’s fate? Eenie meenie miney mo?

You think I’m joking. I’m not. This scenario actually happened to me.

What did I decide to do? Who won…Mary or Betty? Neither. The hero won. I was forced to rely on the old tried-and-true decision maker: my gut. It took some cleansing, but I managed to sterilize my brain of all suggestions and start from scratch, just let my man evolve from his origin in my imagination. I put HIM in the driver’s seat, told him…YOU steer, buster.

A writer has to be careful in selecting reading buddies. If they are close friends, you sometimes feel the need to mold the story to their vision, not yours. Sometimes they have characters in their own heads and want for you to bring them to life for them. And that’s when their contributions can be deadly for your writing. You, like I, might find yourself torn—even to the point of damaging your friendship—if you can’t accommodate their ideas.

I DO have a crit partner. She’s priceless. She watches for what she calls ‘commercial breaks’ in the stories—those elements that don’t gel, don’t flow. She doesn’t always agree with me. I don’t always take her input for gospel. All right, well, maybe about 99-3/4% of it, but who’s counting? 

We agree, we disagree. Most of the time, I fight her suggestions tooth and nail, just to let her know I’m in charge of the story; but, more often than not, I incorporate her ideas into the work. I trust her judgment, her instinct. So far, I've been lucky, because my own instinct has coincided with hers. If it doesn’t, it just doesn’t, and we’ve agreed those indecisive issues will be an editor’s call.

So far, she hasn’t threatened crit-partner blackmail over any of our differences. And, remembering my ordeal with Betty and Mary, I suppose I must be really, really grateful.

Who reads your work while you’re writing it? Close friends? Strictly other writers? Actual crit partners?

How far do you allow them to go with their input? How seriously do you take that input? How do they respond when you disagree? When you stand fast to your own idea and have to say ‘no’ sometimes?

Have you ever had a Betty/Mary situation? And if you did, how did you resolve it?

I’d love to know.


Patric said...

If it is a given that everyone has an opinion, and it is further given that each opinion has weight and merit, then it must stand to reason that you, the author, also have an opinion.

As such, with any stalemate between what you want to write and what a reader *wants* you to write, your opinion holds just as much weight and value as any other, and since *you* are the author, not Betty, Mary, or the third, yours should be the deciding factor.

Since the ancient adage of not pleasing everyone all the time is so very true, you might as well please yourself first (and thereby end up writing for the OTHER readers who share your opinion.)

Mary and Betty are a representation of those factions of your readership who do not readily agree, and as such, their comments matter. But only so far as they coincide with your vision of the story. Consider their comments *as they relate to your vision, your story*. If they fit, use them. If not, "Thanks but no thanks" works well enough.

You already nailed it on the head, Carol. The story comes from your head and your heart. YOU are the author, and the ultimate decision maker.

Stick with that at all times, and if Mary or Betty don't like it, they can write their own damn story.


Natalie Dae said...

I have a great crit partner. She's usually 99.99% right, and I want her to go as far as she likes so the tale is the best it can be.

Great post!

Victor J. Banis said...

This never happens to me. I send a finished draft to a couple of readers and welcome their comments, often very useful. But the story belongs to the characters and the characters are mine, I know them better than anybody else. So, no, I wouldn't make major changes at a reader's suggestion - or even, let it be said, an editor's. I like working with a good editor, even a firm one. Lori Lake was my editor on
Angel Land and I can say without a doubt that it's a better book for her input. But where we disagreed - as, for instance, on the ending - I decide, always. In fact, I now make a point of clarifying with publishers/editors - no changes made without my approval.

But of course there is no point in having a reader whose taste and opinions you don't value. Nowell Briscoe is my # 1 reader, and I treasure his input.

Unknown said...

I actually have had something like this happen, but with a writing partner. As we went along, the changes in the story line continually forced fundamental changes in my character until he was no longer acting like my character. I'm sorry to say, it did damage our friendship, and in the end, I conceded the character and story over to her so she could write as she envisioned it. She liked my character better the way she wrote him, and I didn't see the point in further jeopardizing our relationship over it. I know she will do the tale justice. She is a fabulous writer. We just don't have the same vision when it comes to the types of stories we like to write. In this case, letting go for the sake of our friendship was far more desirable than quibbling over a character, no matter how much that character meant to me at the time. And I learned a valuable lesson about writing with a partner from that. My current writing partner is a dream to work with, and thank to my previous experience, I know better how to deal with necessary changes.

Through my writing career, I've had the privilege of working with some very, very good beta readers. One who was harsh in the extreme, but also from whom I learned fundamental building blocks of my craft and to whom I will always be grateful. I now have a mixture of beta readers: a former editor who knows her grammar inside out and backwards and whom I would be lost without, and a reader/friend who just knows the genre, what works, and has a great eye for little details and character development. She has her finger on what readers like, because she might be the most prolific reader of the genre out there! Another friend, also an avid reader, is my go-to girl when I want an opinion on a specific scene as I'm writing. She sees things in bits and pieces, and helps me get the nuances right. She can often pick out what is not working in a scene I know isn't right, but can't put my finger on why. Then when she reads the entire, finished story, she can help me decide if the scenes are flowing together.

I'm a lucky, lucky writer to have such fantastic friends to help me out, and I always say; the stories come from my head and heart, my fingertips, but I don't write alone. Beta readers, I think, don't always get the kudos they deserve. :)

Em, P, Kath, You ladies rock. Thanks a million and more.


Regina Carlysle said...

I agree with everything said here, C. The story is yours. If your critique partner tries to change YOUR vision, then you should no doubt find someone else. A crit partners job is to point out plot holes and make suggestions but in the end you have to stick with your vision of the story. As to 'appearance'? No one will ever agree about that! Why try to create everyone else's perfect hero or heroine? First and more importantly they much please YOU. Go with your gut every time.

Lauralyn said...

I feel like the odd man out, I kind of hunker down over my stories, work on them pretty privately, and share snippets. If and when they get picked up by a publisher I am very receptive to advice from editors (okay, maybe after a silent ego moment or two), and I've had great editors... I would be the first person to tell you that my books are always better because of the work my editors put into them and the faith I have in those editors.

I share my work with my family but rarely with friends.

C. Zampa said...

Thank you, Patric!
I agree, I agree!
Ant it takes confidence to trust your own vision, let your own character do the leading.

Thank you, my friend!

C. Zampa said...

Thanks for visiting, Nat!
Oh, a good crit partner is a treasure.

Mine never interferes with the characters themselves, but she's much better intuned than I am to the flow, and---believe it or not---seems to know my characters well enough to be able to help me verbalize on points that she knows I meant to say but just fumbled at.

Thanks SO much for visiting!

C. Zampa said...

Thank you, Victor!

I hope my confidence in my characters has grown enough to keep this from ever happening again.

And you're right about having a good, trusted reader. One who reads with your vision in mind, not their own.

Thank you for stopping by!

C. Zampa said...

Ah, Jaime, you tapped on a whole other level of the reader.

That reminded me of experiences I've had where a reader/fellow writer actually could do my story more justice. Not because of the character differences, but the character/plot combo. In this instance, I oddly realized I had the right character, wrong story. They were not a fit.

And I, like you, had to concded that this story---not the character---could be done more justice by his talent than mine.

It takes as much confidence in yourself to LET GO of it as it does to hold fast to it, if that makes sense.

Thanks for your thoughts!

C. Zampa said...

Hello, Regina! Thank you for visiting!
I agree about the crit partner. Certain things need a qualified eye, especially with my writing! LOl...
But you're right. The appeareance? That's when you realize it IS their desire to create a character through YOU. If that's their wish, they need to write a story themselves and let the character 'look' how they see him.

Thank you for stopping by! It's so nice to see you here!

C. Zampa said...

Hello, Zam!
I laughed at your comment about the silent ego moment! Oh, that would be inevitable for me and I see myself having very NOT-so-silent ego moments! LOL.

But I am finding out that, while I thought it was a good thing to have diversity in beta readers, it really actually tears me in too many directions. If, at least, they're like 'Mary' and 'Betty' and are as different in their visions as night and day.

Anonymous said...

I have one solid friend who I allow to read my work as I write. She's been a close friend for a number of years and a fan of my writing before I was ever published. The one thing she is clear on is never question my vision of my characters. On occasion she will ask questions, but never once has she demanded that a character need to be fitted to her tastes.

An example is the female crime reporter from Blood Noir. Her comment was She's a bit on the bitchy side isn't she? which was followed by a chuckle. My reply was Yes, she is!

I don't expect every reader to love every character. I even had a reviewer complain that one of my heroes was stupid. My reply to that Love makes people stupid sometimes. I go for realism in my characters because as a reader I despise the cookie-cutter hero or heroine. The more realistic they are the more I can relate to them.

Literary black-mail will never work on me. Much like Athena sprouting from Zeus' head fully grown, my characters sprout from mine. There are never any do-overs on that aspect of my writing. Other points yes, but never who the characters are. To fold to these type of comments to me is to not be true to yourself as a writer.

Anonymous said...

As an author I can really identify with what you're saying, CZ. I have a book that has a unique and realistic ending and I am being urged to change that ending. The ending is perfect as is. But it WILL have to change in order to be well-received and to actually sell. If I were marketing to a more mainstream audience, I might just keep the ending as is, but the venue I need to use is romance. Romance is a unique world unto itself and the author must get it right. It's a world of escapism. A world where women indulge in their fantasies. It does an author no good to toss them something they ARE NOT looking for. Can you say backlash? It will happen. Has happened.

The likes and dislikes of your CPs are just that, their likes and dislikes. You really do need to make that hero just as you see him. Some women like a hairy chest, some don't. Some women want a more educated man, some want him a little rougher around the edges. While these things may be considered small by some, these character traits DO affect the overall tone of a story. And in the end DO place your book with a certain segment of readers. Some will like it more than others. And those who really liked the book will come back for more of the same. Let's face it--you can't please everyone.

As an editor, I pay attention to industry news. Follow reading trends. If I see an author about to take a big fall with the way they've written something then I am duty-bound to point that out. And to be perfectly honest, I have yet to fail in making my point well enough in which an author balked at the suggested change. Editors are supposed to point out the pitfalls.

Now, of course, if you have an editor who insists you give your hero a hairy chest? Don't do it. lol Hairy or smooth is not something that makes a dime's worth of difference--although research shows that smooth chests ARE preferred. Which is why you always see those buffed babes on the cover art. Not a hair in sight. lol But I still like hairy chests.

Worry over content, how the book will be perceived overall. Paint your character the way you like--keeping in mind that the way you paint your character sets the overall tone of the story.

Very thought-provoking post, CZ. Keep 'em coming.


Sarah Ballance said...

I have a stupendous crit partner / beta reader / everything-elser with a great eye and CLAWS! LOL. But she doesn't try to change my story or my characters and the comments always have merit. Heck, I HAVE to pay attention because after she's read two full manuscripts of mine one thing is clear: she GETS me, and she gets my characters. Even if I don't follow every piece of advice, I know it comes from a good place with my characters and story in mind. It's not blind trust - I ultimately decide for myself - but there's no doubting that our partnership is an amazing one. I really lucked out with her!

C. Zampa said...

Thank you for visiting, Jesse!
And YOU GO GIRL about being adamant that your character was a bit bitchy! I love that!

I enjoyed your thoughts, appreciate them!

Thank you.

C. Zampa said...

Thank you for visiting, Tess!

And, yes, being an editor, you do have a finger on the pulse of the reader. And I agree that there are certain things that an editor can target that will make the book more sellable, and that I will respect. That's where, in my mind, an editor's experience takes up the slack for my inxperience. That will prove invaluable in the long run.

You hit the nail on the is sometimes a matter of likes and dislikes with friends, their own personal preferences. Things they would never do or say don't mean your character would never do or say.

On that point, I agree with Patric. lol...Let them write their own story, with any chest they want! LOL.

Thanks for visiting, Tess!

C. Zampa said...

Hello, Sarah! You hit it...the reader or crit partner who GETS you. That, like you say, does not mean they agree with you, but the respect you and they 'get' you. They learn to know your voice, they pick up on your character and his/her voice and when they DO make suggetions, it's for the character's integrity AS a character, not just for personal preference.

Thank you, my friend. I LUVS you!

Belinda McBride said...

I'm like Zam, I work on my own, without a crit partner or group. I've tried it...but no.

I have the great good fortune to have stupendous editors who know my voice and can enhance my manuscript without interjecting their personal voice. That's just priceless.

That said, when I'm in the process of working out a story...pre-writing...I NEED to vocalize when things get a little confused. Zam has heard my long-winded meanderings, I've got another author friend who walks me through some of my more complex plots and helps me organize my story.

But I own it. There's a character in one of my books who is very popular. Some of my friends think he needs his own book and love interest. Others think he's already in the perfect place. For awhile, I let members of a crit group cloud my brain on the character till I finally pulled back and went, "Hey...this is MY story!" They aren't party to my thinking process. (that's probably a good thing!)

C. Zampa said...

Thank you for visiting, Belinda!

Oh, I know the feeling of having to rear back and day, "This is My story!"

Some do know more about writing than I do, and I heed their advice and weigh it. But when it does cross over to actually changing the entire character to suit their preferences...then, like you say, you do have to pull back.

Thanks for stopping by!

Perpetua said...

**sticks my reader head in** Being a sometime beta reader I think its the job of the author to write the characters and develop them if I wanted to do that then I'd be the author. My job is to help the author tweek it, shine it up and get it ready for the consumer. It is a business after all! Aye there are times when you need to tell the author 'what were you thinking' and 'you need to sort that out' but more often than not for me I pick out mistakes(that I notice) and advise on things that just don't sound right, also what I would do is to ask the author questions about certain scenes, my thinking here is that if I am having problems then maybe there is another way of looking at the scene, to better see what's going on!

These stories are the author's 'babies' so yeah you don't go bashing it. But at the same time you can't just stroke their...ego ;)! What would be the point then?

C. Zampa said...

Thank you, Perpetua!

I am SO glad you mentioned about stroking the egos! Because that is the opposite side of the spectrum that is unbearable: the reader just telling you what they think you want to hear. That is just as bad, in my opinion. And you're right...what would be the point?

I never have issues with an honest reader, and their input often helps me to 'see' the picture, and that is vital to me.

But it's the ones who want to mold my character--even down to his hairy chest, lol---that are doing it for themselves and not for the benefit of the story.

Loved your thoughts, Perpetua.

As you know, as I've told be on your TBR list is my dream.

Shiela Stewat said...

OMG this is so true. I had someone tell me I had to rewrite a character because he was "to real" She wanted him more, hero like in that he should be gorgeous, buff and so on. I fought it and am I glad. I get so many emails about how perfect the character is.

Sometimes the author needs to stand their ground and keep things the way it was meant to be.

Great post!

C. Zampa said...

Oh, that is SO funny, Sheila! Good for you for NOT changing him! I love a real-to-life hero, I can relate to him!

Thanks for visiting! And hang in there with your characters!

Unknown said...

I've succumbed to this affect a couple of times. I finally had to decide I wasn't going to feed my ms to readers in the growing phase. I have a fondness for writing about people whose flaws are extreme -- to the point where they're not always likable. When I let people who don't write characters like that, they reject them and say 'no one would read this'. Then I read a best selling novel by one a novel I respect and he has a character like mine.

So now I let the character tell me what he's like, only afterward do I let others read it, plus I've learned to ignore the ones that insist he has to be nicer or softer. I won't force my men into someone else's idea of what he should be.

C. Zampa said...

Oh, thank God you DON'T listen! That's what I LOVE about your characters, Pat, is that they ARE real, they are NOT perfect, they DO get bad sometimes. They are, in other words...HUMAN.

Thank you for your thoughts! And don't you ever change!

Unknown said...

I think the biggest danger in listening to others and altering your work to please them, especially if you are doing it for more than one person is your work will end up so watered down it will be like a tepid cup of tea -- or a camel. Remember a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Me, I'd much rather have a stallion than a bad tempered, spitting camel. LOL.

C. Zampa said...

Amen, Pat! And so would I!