Why We Judge Literary Characters Harshly: We’re FANS

veterans-stadium-480627-mFor 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.)
  • Trekkies
  • 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.


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?



34 responses to “Why We Judge Literary Characters Harshly: We’re FANS

  1. I have never been truly let down by a character I really liked, as far as I recall right now, but via reading fandom forums back then, I have watched extreme fan reactions when Snape killed Dumbledore. Of course, with Snape it was the other way round: The mistake-loaded character was redeemed, much to the satisfaction of Team Severus. But after Book 7, after we got an explanation for the murder of Dumbledore, people suddenly started to defend all his other flaws – he’s a good guy, so it’s alright that he’s a terrible teacher (on a human level), bullies pupils and has a really bad temper – right? Snape is such an interesting example. He has some truly terrible qualities, but the fandom was fascinated with him long before his motivations and the thing with Lily were uncovered. I read fanfictions which glorified him before even Book 5 was published. It is so interesting how a character can stir emotions in so many different ways.
    I’m a fan of that character because he was impossible to figure out until the end. The thing about Snape is that he did the really disappointing things right from the start. Bullying Neville (and others) was a no-go, but Snape was pretty much introduced by doing things like that, so this was nothing which could later on disappoint me. It was just a friendly reminder that Snape is a fascinating character, but not a good person per se.

    • Oh my gosh, Snape is a really great example of this!!!! You are so right: people DID jump to defend this very human and flawed character as something perfect and wonderful. He might have ended up one of the good guys along, but he was still a jerk.

  2. I can think of two occasions where I felt betrayed by a fictional character in a novel. The books were Samuel Delany’s “Triton” and William Goldman’s “Heat”, and in both cases the main character was largely driven by a particular desire, spent the novel working towards that goal, and in the end had the goal within reach and gave up on it.

    That, to me, is what makes me feel let down by a writer–when the character is untrue to his or her own motivations. Even though, on reflection, I think both Delany’s Bron Helstom and Goldman’s Nick Escalante were realistically written–people sometimes do just that–they were unsatisfying as characters. In both cases I felt that I had just invested a lot of emotional energy in people who turned out not to be worth it.

    Intellectually I can understand what these authors were doing, in terms of character studies, but emotionally I felt cheated.

    • That’s a cool perspective: when a character betrays him or herself. We are all led off track and veer away from our calling and our goals and our virtues sometimes. I love how you recognize that this flaw makes those characters human even though they disappointed you. Very cool.

  3. I’ve been annoyed by characters, but I can’t think of one that I got angry at. I’ve done the opposite with feeling better or more sympathetic about a character like Gollum from LOTR. Strange thing with me is that I tend to connect more with secondary characters or main cast that aren’t the main/main character. So, maybe the standards are different for those types of characters.

    Two fandoms that I’ve found to be more insane than the rest: Twihards (kudos for getting through that post without mentioning them) and Brown Coats (Firefly fanatics). The weird thing about the Brown Coats to me is that many of them still firmly believe that the show will come back some day. I would think such an act would be a disaster because things are never as bright and shiny as we remember them. So, fandoms can be rather destructive to the characters they love.

    • My general approach to Twilight is just to pretend it does not exist. The world seems brighter that way (or at least less sparkly?)

      I considered taking a dig at Twilight but…. not worth peeving off people who might be fans 🙂

      I have definitely heard of Firefly but not of their fans as “browncoats.” So cool to know!

      • I didn’t realize they were called that until this year. I got in a tiff with a friend when I pointed out that bringing the series back meant you get not-as-fit-as-he -was Nathan Fillion. They didn’t take to that too well, which is weird because they watch Castle too.

        I will give the Twilight fans credit on dedication and the ability to rationalize all the stuff that was thrown at them. I’ve seen tamer plot twists break other fandoms.

  4. Wait, Star Trek fans don’t have a special nickname? Sad! There has to be one somewhere. And yes, fandom seems like it can be a very creepy thing!

  5. I guess I’m all four on the fan base list (Whovian etc.)
    I don’t feel let down by characters per se, so much as let down by writers who sometimes jump the shark with character antics when a series grows stale.

  6. Oh, I love this post so much!

    I’ve been having all kinds of trouble with my protagonist — she hasn’t been vulnerable enough for the story to really work later — and just last night I figured out what I needed to do with her. My fix not only gives her depth and sets her up in a much more accurate light, but it also doubles as a way to push the plot forward much more effectively than how I was handling it. Everything clicked and I can’t wait to crack on with it! Thanks to many of your helpful posts, I’ve gotten a lot better at actually writing the characters I think I’m writing… Thanks so much!

    • Oh my gosh, I’m so glad you stopped by, and I’m thrilled to hear the blog is helping you. Yea for figuring how to deepen your character and present a more full and accurate image to her. Awesome!!! 😛 That’s always so great…. There’s no better feeling!

  7. nineteen98spirit

    Amazing advice, I love the idea of balancing positive and negative characteristics of the characters. I completely relate to the post as I myself have made irrational excuses for characters sometimes… *woops* It’s funny to what extremes people will really go to protect a fictional being.


  8. I felt completely betrayed by the characters in the (admittedly immature) Maze Runner books 2 & 3. The first book was polished and edited, but I felt so betrayed by the characters in the 2nd and especially the 3rd book that I refuse to read anything else by the author. You’re absolutely right that we as authors need to drop hints about our characters’ flaws in advance so they don’t seem like staged plot twists. Great discussion!

    • Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for giving an example. I think you are dead on there… characters CAN mess up, for sure, but when those mistakes come across as staged plot twists it’s not a good situation.

  9. I am a total River Song (Doctor Who) fan.

    • I like River okay!!! Ten’s companions are my favorites…. I can take or leave River, Amy, and Rory.

      • I don’t really like Rose because of the dimension cannon but Martha and Donna are really good. Martha for Smith and Jones, Family of Blood and the one after Utopia. Donna for the oi spaceboy and Martian comments with the Donna slaps and I’m just a temp from cheswick turning out to be the most important women in the universe. I love Sarah Jane and the Sarah Jane adventures.

  10. I read twilight and it took about half the book to get to the good bit and even that was predictable. I have watched Eragon as a film and it was brilliant but the book was very confusing.

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