AUTHORS: Three Circumstances to Let Readers Know You Share Their Frustration

reading-books-at-home-1145735-mThis post is about annoyed readers: specifically, how we authors can “annoy” readers in a way that’s NOT annoying. Or at least, how we can annoy them in a way that they’ll accept and overlook.

Confused yet? Let me explain.

There are times when a necessary aspect of fiction might frustrate or annoy a reader; when authors know that’s the case, a great strategy to approach the troublesome point is to make it obvious that you, the author, feel the same way the reader does.

Remember: this is for necessary aspects of your work that might be annoying or troublesome.

And that is the first point I want to make. Clearly, when some part of your novel or short story is cumbersome, or frustrating, and it is possible to cut it, you cut it. If you can tone it down in any way, throw some of the focus elsewhere, you do that.

Responsible authors do what they can to avoid frustrating their readers. Sometimes, though, it’s required to annoy readers for some reason or another; when that’s the case, you as the author will generally share that same frustration, and a character will normally be to blame.

With some exceptions, the circumstances I am talking about will be the result of who your characters are and the choices they make. And that’s not something you can always change. It’s not something you should necessarily WANT to change.

For instance, let’s take the case of:

Annoying Characters

My favorite examples of this come from Jane Austen. You will never find characters more annoying than the flattering, fake, and cloying Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. In contrast, Miss Bates from Emma might be kind and goodhearted, but she is also tedious to deal with.

Let’s face it: some people, well-meaning or not, are frustrating. They are exasperating. They drain energy. And it’s just possible your characters might have to deal with such people, which means your readers will have to read about them.

Readers are understanding and generally awesome people. They get that dealing with annoying and/or clueless people is part of life. When you have a character like this:

  • make his or her role as small as you can
  • don’t freak out that you know readers won’t like this person
  • consider this a chance for you to bond with your readers over a shared annoyance.

Because it is that. It TOTALLY is that. All you have to do is make readers know that you understand how they feel.

You can have other characters demonstrate frustration. That gives readers an outlet. They can vent vicariously through your characters.

You can also, through a narrator, imply that you aren’t unaware that this character is difficult to handle. Sometimes a simple recognition that, “Yeah, I know. I KNOW, believe me,” is enough to help readers plow through.

A character’s choice does not make sense

This example is plot-related. Sometimes characters make choices readers don’t understand yet.

The characters DO have their reasons. And their choices WILL make sense by the end of the novel, when everything falls into place. They just don’t make sense right away.

This is a common state of affairs for us writers. We like convoluted, complex stories. And while there is always a danger readers might assume, “This plot is lousy and full of holes, so I’ll stop reading now,” it doesn’t take much to reassure readers that things will come together.

All you need is a character B to recognize that character A’s decision or action doesn’t feel right.

When a character recognizes this, your reader knows that YOU recognize this. And that is reassuring, because when readers know you understand that a plot hole ostensibly exists, they can safely assume it will clear itself up; they’ll know it’s not truly a plot hole. They just don’t have all the information yet.

Repetition

Sometimes, writers need to use repetition as a literary device. (Here are 3 ways to use repetition in your writing.)

Repetition is always tricky, and some readers might feel that you’re repeating yourself a bit more than necessary, even if others need a reminder about some backstory and will appreciate that you jogged their memory.

When using repetition, it can be a good idea (depending on your style and on your story) to recognize openly that, “Yes, I know I’m repeating myself and that choice is deliberate.”

When this, happens you accomplish something very important.

Your readers might disagree that repeating yourself is a good idea. They might be somewhat annoyed. They might skip ahead.

But they will NOT judge you sloppy. They will know that you made a deliberate and artistic choice to use repetition, and most readers will respect that.

I, at least, always respect authors who have enough control over their writing to clue me in that they know what they’re doing: whether their choices appeal to me or not. That’s the difference between “a bad book” and “a decent or good book I simply did not enjoy.”

You can always use narration or dialogue to recognize, “This has been said before.” When you do, you can better influence reader interpretation of your skill and your intent.

So, what do you think about this? Please feel free to share your thoughts.

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23 responses to “AUTHORS: Three Circumstances to Let Readers Know You Share Their Frustration

  1. I detest books where the author “lets me know”, they are invariably moralising and patronising in the extreme. It should be clear from an author’s characterization and plot choice what his protagonists and sub-plot characters are about and what choices they make should follow naturally out of their personalities and circumstances of their settings. You are advocating the style of writing here that we see employed in virtually every Hollywood movie and TV show that comes out of the USA these days…there the writers assume at all times that their audience has the intelligence of a mentally retarded oyster, so they “let us know”…

    200 years ago Jane Austen’s readers didn’t have to be educated kings and queens to know that she employed wit and irony and that her characters represent certain types of people one could find in any society in any period throughout history. That’s why Austen is world literature, every one of her works a timeless classic, and that’s why I think you are advocating a style that’s only suitable for mass market fiction a la Dan Brown.

    • I am actually advocating writing LIKE Jane Austen, not Dan Brown…. I am a huge fan of using wit and irony to imply, and Jane Austen happens to be one of my favorite authors. I don’t read contemporary fiction. Maybe I wasn’t clear but I am taking about using characters not to state, but to imply, that you know a character is annoying, or to recognize that you’re aware a seeming plot hole exists. I am not advocating writing like Hollywood…. at least, that is certainly not my intention.

    • I also always, always say to “follow the characters.” That, as you say, plot should flow from who your characters are and what choices they would logically and naturally make.

  2. Unlike Maria, I totally agree with the post. These are some neat tricks, and they can make use of the reader’s intelligence. I love Pride and Prejudice, I like that it’s smartly written and forces the reader to use their intelligence, but I really couldn’t take any more of Mr Collins. Similarly, having a character draw attention to an inconsistency in motive assumes that the reader is smart enough to notice and be vexed by it. Giving the reader a small nod to show that you’re both on the same page, and that you are aware of their misgivings, treats them as an equal, someone who’s in on the process with you. Looking again at Pride and Prejudice, Austen tips her hat to the reader from the very first sentence, indicating that the whole thing is about ridiculous social values and false assumptions, and that we should beware buying in to them. But it’s only later in the novel, when some of those assumptions are pulled aside, that Darcy becomes likeable.

    • I totally agree with you. I LOVE “Pride and Prejudice” and I love your description here of treating the reader like an equal. That’s definitely what Austen does and I hadn’t thought of what I was describing in that way, but that’s exactly what “tipping a hat” to the reader does!

  3. Great post! I love that you have covered a topic that doesn’t readily spring to mind when considering the plethora of tips, tricks and trip-ups that come with writing a novel.

    Bookmarked for further use and re-blogged too.

    Thanks.

    • I’m so glad you liked this one! it’s something that occurred to me through my experience as a reader. I got to thinking about why I don’t mind some frustrating characters, such as Emma Woodhouse or Scarlett O’Hara.

  4. Reblogged this on How Do You Pronounce Eynon? and commented:
    I really like the way this touched on a subject not often mentioned around the blogoshere, so I just had to reblog. Thank you to Victoria Grefer for the original.
    Enjoy…

  5. i like the idea of tip reminders via other characters’ dialog or observations; besides, at that initial point, the reader really shouldn’t be totally sure if the conflicting / repeating points mean the observant reminder is the way things are, or if the irritating or repeating point might mean more than it seemed 😉

    anyway, for me, excellent points and ideas of how to handle one’s own instant awareness as a writer, that something is irritating us or we’ve go “oops, mentioned that already” – thanks so much!

  6. I fully agree with you on this. Especially with annoying characters because I think some readers tend to forget that annoying people exist. It’s funny how all the ‘negative’ attributes of human behavior are expected to be removed in literary characters. Even if I’m frustrated with a character during the reading, many times I think back and realize how necessary it was. For example, a character that is always complaining can be hated by readers. It may be the character’s personality, which is one that is rather common in our world. Once you realize this then the character’s annoying behavior takes on a more tolerable level. Same with character choices because not everyone makes the right one in reality.

    I guess that’s a ‘curse’ for authors. The more real you make fictional characters and situations, the higher the chance you’ll get complaints about the flaws.

  7. Reblogged this on Daphodill's Garden and commented:
    This is a great post! Writers, read carefully. Are your readers frustrated? Did you do that on purpose, to illustrate your charcters’ growth? [Yeah, that’s exactly what I was trying to do. *Can you side eye yourself? ] Give this little beauty a read. Reassess your characters and how they change through your story. Are you giving too much time to characters and scenes that aren’t important to your grand design? Don’t discount your readers’ intelligence. You don’t have to give everything away.
    That’s the great thing about drafts. You have unlimited tries to get it right. No story is ever truly finished, right?
    Happy writing!

  8. Great post, and great tips. I’ve never really had the nerve to use frustrating characters in any of my stories, though I can certainly understand the need for them at times!

  9. I find that my characters often repeat themselves…but when I’m revising, I’m careful to make sure that the repetition is necessary to the story. If it’s not, I cut it out. After all, we don’t want to beat our readers over the head with the same boring details! However, sometimes it’s necessary to jog a reader’s memory for the sake of the plot, and in that case, I allow my characters to “remind them.”

    In regard to annoying characters, a writer never knows how readers will react to our creations. Sometimes, it’s strictly personal and an aversion can occur through no fault of our own. Let’s face it: The entire process of creating a believable fictional world can prove tricky at best!

    • You are so right: there is no way to tell how readers will react to a character. That is something very personal and very individualistic. I try not to get too hung up on it, or too feel insulted/hurt when people don’t like one of my characters I feel I learned a lot from and am very attached to.

  10. Excellent post. I think I did okay with my novel on this, but no harm in being reminded that following my instinct on was the right thing to do. And I wasn’t hitting the reader over the head with it, a la Hollywood style. 😉

  11. Great advice as usual. I really need to think through some potentially unpopular decisions one of my character makes. At first I was going to cut one, because I feared readers will be annoyed. So, I appreciate what you said about using other characters to acknowledge the annoyance factor. After all, characters should not always perfectly agree. Look at the brother of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. I found him (and his wife) incredibly annoying. But his actions made for good conflict.

    • I love Jane Austen so much. Sense and Sensibility is my least favorite of her books but still, SO worth the read for the reasons you point out. Austen has a way of making me care about people I wouldn’t like at all in real life. It’s really cool to sit and contemplate why that is. It helps my writing 🙂

  12. Pingback: The Implied Author: What it is, and why it matters | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  13. Pingback: On Narcissism, Comedy, and Why I Loved “Psych” In Spite of Shawn Spencer | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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