What’s an author to say when a reader’s needs conflict with those of his characters?
As I’m struggling to come to terms with the disastrous events of this past week, I’ve been drawn into intriguing reflections spawned by a negative review. Perhaps I’m seeking refuge in these musings by focusing on minutiae I can get my head around, as opposed to the imminent destruction of life as I know it, but I’d like to share my thoughts. . . such as they are.
Let me acknowledge first that bad reviews come with the territory. I respect anyone who takes the time to read my work—and even more so if they take the time to share their thoughts. I’ve learned from good and bad reviews. The bad ones are often the best teachers. There may be something important to be learned, but in this case, I’m aground on a conflict between what a reader is saying they need and what my characters are telling me they need. When you’re at work on a sequel, it’s an important point.
Here’s the first of several questions I’d like to share:
Does a book fail because it didn’t give the reader what they needed?
I’m going to provide some specifics in hopes you might help me figure this out. “Last Chance” is the story of two gay men. Detective Beston has had to hide his true self behind the macho bluster of his job on an island police force. Vaughn Kreisler has hidden his transvestitism and homosexuality behind secure walls of wealth and white male privilege. The latter finds redemption in his “feminine side,” which allows him/her to be all that “he” alone could not. Only after his acceptance of his entire persona do empathy, compassion, and self-respect enter his reality. He still struggles with his sexuality and after years of denial is still afraid of his gay self.
Sex comes easily to Beston, and, under the right conditions, so does compassion. He has come to love the orphaned daughter of a husband and wife who were murdered as the result of one of his investigations. (These are two of the three murders that have already occurred before the story begins. All three will cast a long shadow over book two of the series.) Beston is deeply closeted in a prison of his own making. By constantly living up to his colleagues’ expectations of masculinity, he’s become incapable of a loving relationship. He’s taken on the worst attributes of his oppressors, suspecting anyone and everyone while smugly confident in his superior wisdom and impeccable instincts. He still struggles to do right, fighting against corruption and prejudice while knowing if he is outed, his world will collapse. He is, and it does.
It’s nothing extraordinary that, when the two men meet, they have sex within the hour. What may be atypical is their achieving transcendence in such a short amount of time. They are each other’s redemption, and, on a visceral level, they recognize that. As their creator, I know that as well.
I don’t want to influence you by giving away too much. Let’s just say that there’s one heck of a dust up when Beston’s hyper-masculinity clashes with Vaughn’s feminine persona. And only one way that this love can be saved: Beston must acknowledge the disconnect within himself and shed years of negative beliefs. As you might suspect, he needs a catalyst.
Here, I take my sole exception to the review. That catalyst, a gentle Bahamian man with a strong accent, calls Beston on his self-deception. Described in the book as “. . . a good man, well educated, and the best student of human nature I’ve ever met,” the reviewer describes him as a “native.” I object.
I’m not usually one to care much about negative opinion. In this case, I’m genuinely confused.
Here are parts of the review that perplex me. Especially the first two statements.
- “First off this is genderfluid One of the main characters is a biological male and for part of the time he feels like a woman trapped in a man’s body, but he also feels like a man in a man’s body sometimes. Yet, this was treated almost more like a case of split personalities with the detective often throwing those very words back in the face of the person he supposedly loves.”
- Second, detective Beston turned out to be a horrible person and I hated him and how he treated Amanda/Vaughn. He blew up at them and called them a “transvestite,” a freak, an it.
- “. . .this book was technically well written and showcased the author’s grasp on beautiful language and structure.”
- “I found parts of this story borderlined offensive and incorrect.”
- “The author really did a great job with the self discovery, and the way this story was written only served to emphasize the tension and the emotion as these struggles for growth took place. Up until the mystery was revealed, I was on the edge of my seat imagining all the ways this would play out and how the romance would surface at just the right moment to bring this story to a satisfying culmination. Only, once the secrets were out, this story fell apart. Badly.”
- “…the author needed to add some serious word count and ACTUALLY TAKE THE TIME TO HAVE BESTON APOLOGIZE AND CHANGE, before I could accept this book as anything resembling satisfying.”
- “But as this one stands, I felt offended on behalf of Amanda/Vaughn and never got what I needed to even begin to believe Detective Beston was worthy of their time.”
As an author, what is my obligation?
If I judged books by what I “needed”as a reader, and the author accommodated me, here’s how things might have turned out:
- Anna Karenina would not have jumped in front of the train.
- Gatsby would have lived.
- So would Albus Dumbledore
- And Old Yeller (don’t get me started on Bambi’s mother)
- War and Peace would be entitled, Peace
I’m not completely sure my needs would have enhanced the works’ literary merit or satisfied the needs of other readers. Nor do I think their authors let me down with the choices they made.
Of course, it’s my responsibility alone to be certain my stories function, but in setting the stage for a series, I see a larger question of characterization that recapitulates throughout these objections.
Is it a “character flaw”?
Both men needed to acknowledge their true selves and escape the beliefs that imprisoned them. There is an inherent conflict in this. Nothing can be more traumatic than the outing and destruction of a negative belief. Even so, is it totally unbelievable that love could be strong enough to withstand such horrific abuse without demanding an apology? If the character does not demand one, is that a flaw in their nature or a manifestation of the depth of their love?
I completely agree that Beston’s emotional gyrations were appalling. They were intended to showcase all that is ugly and oppressive about hyper-masculinity, say nothing of f***’d-up attitudes toward women. (Is it perverse of me to think that if the reviewer felt offended on behalf of Vaughn/Amanda, the story was actually working?)
If this is the story of two gay men (I wrote it so I guess I’m entitled to say at least that much about them) who struggled to free themselves from these constraints, wouldn’t they know the battleground intimately? How much would have to be said? Might they express themselves physically instead, revealing vulnerability and encouraging intimacy? More importantly, how much do we as readers have a right to demand they do as we might wish? Aren’t some moments even more powerful for their taking place off stage and being left to our imaginations? These questions intrigue me, but I don’t want the story’s potential to fall short if I’m missing something.
Beston’s final words were meant to convey a great deal about a man who was confronting his genuine self for the first time. “You simply must understand, it was never about the money. I agree to sail away with you because I love you—and finally trust you love me.” It’s not an apology; it’s more of an admission of humanity. I don’t know about you, but I’d take that over “I’m sorry,” any day.
The specter of “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” hangs over this kerfuffle. I don’t want to reduce the discussion to that level, and I’ve probably made it clear what side of the issue I’m favoring. Even so, I’d appreciate more input as to whether the story works or not. To that end, I’m going to gift a Kindle copy of “Last Chance” so you can decide for yourself. Click here, sign up for my mailing list, and write “send me a copy” in the message box. I’ll send out a copy to the first 30 people who contact me. I hope you’ll respond by sharing your thoughts. Feel free to email me or share your comments on this blog page.
Here are some links that might prove useful should you wish to dig further:
Read an excerpt from “Last Chance.”
Read the review in question.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest, it’s back to the destruction of life as I know it. And no, I still haven’t decided whether I’m moving to New Zealand. I guess it’s a question of which tsunami is worse.
Photo © 2015 Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
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