Posted by Shoshana Brown Apr 20 2011, 12:01 am in Shoshana Brown, taking risks
As a reader, I love characters with backbone. Nothing annoys me more than a heroine who is nice to EVERYONE–even the people who repeatedly blow her off, insult her, or try to hurt her–like the writer is afraid that if the heroine dares to stand up for herself, the reader will think she’s mean. Standing up for yourself isn’t spiteful–it’s a basic survival instinct.
But as a writer, I sometimes fall into the too-nice-to-be-true trap. How can I be sure the reader will agree that Harmony is justified in having Melissa’s car stolen and crushed because Melissa slept with her boyfriend? (Not a real example–I would never name a character Harmony.) Maybe I should tone it down a little. Maybe I should tone it down a lot. Maybe I should get rid of the scene altogether and skip to the part where Harmony and Melissa bond over margaritas at the beachside bar.
What can I say–I have trust issues.
But I needed to get over them, so I went to the best source of help I had–my bookshelf. Some of my favorite books feature heroines who aren’t just tough–they’re downright abrasive at times. How were the authors portraying these women in a way that still allowed readers to connect with them? I pulled a couple of books off the shelf so I could investigate.
Rachel’s Holiday, by Marian Keyes, follows Rachel’s recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. While under the influence, Rachel did some pretty bad things–bad enough that she lost her job, her best friend, and her boyfriend. And yet, I loved her from page one. Why? (1) The story begins just after Rachel has nearly ODed and is getting checked in to an inpatient treatment center. It’s hard not to have sympathy for a character who has hit bottom. (2) The story is not told in chronological order. It’s only as Rachel starts to come to terms with her addiction that she faces the things she did while under the influence. By the time I realized the extent of her mistakes, I was much too attached to give up on her. It also helped that the events were filtered through Rachel’s new, more mature standards of behavior.
Sugar Beth Carey, from Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Ain’t She Sweet, grew up selfish and spoiled. She influences the entire high school into ostracizing the half-sister she resents, and when a teacher threatens to reveal one of her more unsavory actions to her parents, she tells a lie that gets him fired. But the story begins fifteen years later, after Sugar Beth has matured and realized just how damaging her actions were. She returns to her hometown friendless, boyfriendless, and nearly penniless. Her former teacher and her half-sister are the town’s leading citizens, and you know they’re going to make Sugar Beth pay for every single offense with interest. Sugar Beth is the underdog, and it’s hard not to root for the underdog.
Did everyone love the main characters in Rachel’s Holiday and Ain’t She Sweet? Probably not. But the books appealed to enough people that they both made it to the best-seller lists.
So instead of trying to make sure everyone in the universe loves my heroine all the time, when I sit down to revise my manuscript, I’ll simply try to make sure she is the kind of strong, capable character I love. In the end, that’s the best that I can do.
Do you have reader trust issues? How do you deal with them?