Thursday, March 18, 2010

Yeah, um, about that main character...

I do quite a lot of reading and critiquing other writer's manuscripts--sometimes online, for real-life friends, or for my Most Awesome Critique Group. I like reading for others and it's essential for my own work to hear the opinion of trusted fellow writers to tell me what works, what's dragging, and if my main character is coming across as clever and witty (good!), or just a bitch (not so much good.)

I've critiqued Middle Grade, Young Adult, Sci-Fi, Paranormal, Poetry, Short Stories (many) Thriller, literary fiction, and LOADS of women's fiction. I'm genre-promiscuous. The one thing I have a tougher time ripping apart so the author can put it back together is memoir, or thinly-veiled fiction about the author.

Now, most of the time I can do it. I can find issues with pacing, or characterization, or whatever.

But this one time.

This one time, I just did NOT like the main character at all. At ALL.* She was vain and mean! And did terrible things other people's expense! And didn't change a whit throughout the story! And it was So. Clearly. Her.

Gawd. What do you do then? "Hey, the story was fine, but I didn't really like,"

I gave her kind of a half-assed critique, but was too chicken to come right out and say what I was thinking. I know--to each her own. Other people might dig it.

What would you do? Tell her your real thoughts? Or dance all around it?

*If I've critted for you and you are reading this thinking OMG SHE'S TALKING ABOUT ME, don't worry, I'm not. I guarantee the author doesn't read this blog.


Melanie Hooyenga said...

I was in a very similar situation -- with memoir -- and I lucked out that she couldn't keep up with swapping chapters. I let that "partership" die a quick and heartless death.

If I actually had to give a critique, I think I'd suggest that she soften up the portrayal a bit -- maybe find a quote from an agent where THEY say the MC needs to be at least a little bit likable so they'll appeal to a broader market.

Good luck.

Robin said...

If the character is unlikable and and makes the book not work, then it needs to be rewritten in order for the book to work. I guess my problem here is... I am having a hard time believing that you are *really close friends* with someone who is that bitchy and unlikable SO, what is the loss in telling her the truth? That would be the only reason NOT to tell her, wouldn't it? I wouldn't want to lose a friend that I valued over a book critique. However, she is otherwise talented as a writer, so she probably isn't going to give up. I guess, the question you're really asking yourself is this: Do I want to be the person who tells her that her main character is too bitchy? Someone eventually will. I think you just don't want it to be you. The more interesting question is... why?

Allie said...

Wow, that is a really rough one. Maybe keep the references, obviously, as "the character" and kindly hint toward adding more moments that show the character's softer side or generate a feeling of empathy from "the reader" (not, you, of course, readers in general), or working with the arc of the character to show how she's changed and grown from the experience. Something along those lines? That's a hard one!

Paulo Campos said...

I experience this somewhat regularly with a member of my writing group. He's got a knack for capturing time and place. His stories are thrilling in that respect.

His characters, all autobiographical, are very boring. They don't speak; think occasionally; and act very passively.

I put a lot of thought into how to respond to his work without hurting his feelings. I've found myself asking him to imagine the characters in different settings. Purely as an exercise, but the settings or situations I suggest are ones that would force these characters to act, speak, think assertively.

It's not entirely the same situation you describe so this may not be too helpful. But I find transporting my characters to different situations a helpful way to figure out what they're capable of. I feel comfortable suggesting he do this because I can talk about what I've found doing the same thing and I'm pretty sure I avoid hurting his feelings.

(I also know he doesn't read writing blogs so what I've described here won't hurt his feelings).

One of my favorite parts of being a writer is negotiating other writer's drafts and am always glad to think about that. Thanks for your thought-provoking post!

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Do you know if she thinks the mc is like her? If not, it's easier to tell her the truth. If, on the other hand, you think she does think she's similar to her mc, then you've got more of a problem. Would love to hear what you decide to do. (Better you than me, honey!)

Jennifer Walkup said...

First, this made me LOL: genre-promiscuous. tee hee, love that.

what would i do? hmmm. honestly, i'd probably dance around it and not be totally honest. i would give as much crit as i could to still help the ms, but i don't think i could put the mc down in that case, unless giving just some minor grievances and not getting too into it. i am usually an honest crit partner but if the mc is based on her, it's tough to critique that. good luck and let us know how it works out!

JLC said...

You could drop a hint for her to check out your blog. :)

I think it is especially tricky when writers put 'themselves' into the story. (Which would definitely be the case with a memoir) The story becomes a form of therapy for him or her. I think the main goal of the writer needs to be known. Is this story 'therapy', or does she really want to sell a book?

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

I wrote a beginning chapter book with a selfish main character (that eventually becomes a better kid). One of my critiquing partners didn't like him at all, she wanted me to make him more likeable before he changes his ways. I sent the first ten pages to an editor at a write for hire publisher and she really liked it...go figure...I value what both of them said and think both of their opinions have made my ms better because of them. But you have to know how your critique will be received...Some people are looking for a kudos and nothing else...

Purple Cow said...

Why beat about the bush - tell the truth (about the "character" - not her). Would you like it if people were dishonest when evaluating your work? And don't forget that's just your opinion...

WendyCinNYC said...

This happened a while back--what I did was suggest a few ways to create empathy, but it was clear she wanted to play up the whole "brash" thing. Which is fine, whatever, maybe some people would think RIGHT ON! YEAH!

I dunno. Maybe I should've been more honest.

Kristina said...

For me I think it would depend on how she takes critiques in general.

Is she thin-skinned and defensive and uses her fiction to play out her personal agenda?

Or is she a talented writer who is good at taking suggestions, who also just happens to be writing about herself?

If the former, I'd have a hard time critiquing anything of hers. If the latter, I'd just go for it and say what's on my mind.

I had to tell my (lovely, talented) critique partner that something major in her draft didn't work for me. I cringed to do it, but I knew I HAD to. That's why she'd asked me. I was morally obligated, in fact. But then, the reason she's my crit partner is that she knows how to take criticism and she knows how to give it. win-win.

Sage Ravenwood said...

I would totally play it off she needed some,'give and take' with her character.

Maybe explain it using the term -
sympathy card. Let her know she needs to explain why her character developed such an abrasive attitude.

If the reader can't relate to the protagonist, they won't be as forgiving.

Anonymous said...

Wendy, just think of the author as a child. How would you like to break it to a 10, 12 or even 14 year old?

If you can't explain it in a way that they understand you're helping, not criticising, then they don't understand what your job is! Mart.

Anonymous said...

Months ago I was in a similar situation, and it seemed like I was the only one in the group who didn't care for the person's writing. I said what was on my mind gently, but the person still stood by his writing.

moonrat said...

it's never the people who most need to read blogs who actually read them.