For the last couple of days I’ve been discussing reasons that readers judge literary characters harshly: in some cases, more harshly than we judge real people. Today, I wanted to take the “reader as fan” approach.
It’s important to realize that as your readers begin to relate to your characters, they will begin to root for them. They will wish the best for them, fall in love with them, and their expectations for them will be sky high (and perhaps not all that realistic).
Fandom is a crazy thing. It’s very real. And it most certainly applies to fiction. Think of the crazy sci-fi/fantasy fanbases alone:
- Whovians (that’s me.)
- Potterheads (I’m one of those too).
- Star Wars fans
You don’t have to be a best-selling, world-famous author for readers to appreciate your work and feel as though they’ve truly gotten to know your awesome characters.
Readers are fans. So when your characters do something stupid, or something wrong to let your readers down, you readers will feel that in a sincere way.
This isn’t a bad thing, at all. You want your readers to be invested in your characters. To care what happens to them. To feel close enough to them to feel personally betrayed when they make mistakes.
You just need to remember: your readers WILL feel bad choices as a betrayal, and you should react to/anticipate that accordingly.
You need to have something in your story that gives readers hope (if not even assurance) that the characters they love will redeem themselves. That they will admit and learn from their mistakes.
THE TWO TYPES OF FAN
There are two types of fan, whether of real-life celebrities or of characters. At least, there are two major ways fans end up reacting when the person they’re a fan of lets them down.
- DENIAL/”CAN DO NO WRONG.” These fans will go to extremes to make excuses for the character they love. They will twist logic and twist ethics to excuse their favorite characters of wrong-doing. This kind of fan isn’t likely to stop reading a book because your character messed up. Though they might feel troubled when your character admits he messed up, they’re more likely to compartmentalize. “He didn’t really mess up, but everything ended up okay when he fixed the situation.”
- THE BETRAYAL REACTION. Disbelief that turns into anger and disappointment. “I expected better from you.” “How could you do such a thing?” This is a real, real danger for a writer who doesn’t show ahead of time that a character has real flaws and genuine weaknesses (like all of us do.)
You want you readers to become fans because they understand and admire the strengths of your characters even though they have weaknesses. Not because they are perfect.
The betrayal reaction, occuring when a character is painted too perfect before messing up, is genuine: the reader has been betrayed by the author. By shoddy and inconsistent characterization.
When a reader thinks, “How could he do that? Why would he do that?” then chances are the character as written isn’t someone who would do that and is acting out of character.
Readers are right to become annoyed–and stop reading–when they invest in a character who they believe is a certain person, only to have that person change who he or she is with no real reason or explanation.
So don’t let your characters let their fans down.
- Know who your characters are, and keep them true to that. Consistency is key.
- I always say this, but BALANCE: positives and negatives. You can write about good people without starting with a utopia of flawless beings.
- Make sure the mistakes your characters make are fitting for their personalities, histories, goals, and desires. They have to ring true.
- Prepare readers to be disappointed if they have to be disappointed. Before the big mistake, make sure they have enough of an idea of who your character is to trust he will make things right.
So, what do you think about characters and fandoms? Have you been let down by a character you were a fan of?
- On Not Cutting Characters Slack: Reader Patience is Limited and Best Stored for Real People
- The Mirror Theory: We Judge Ourselves in Judging Characters