Saturday, March 26, 2011

When Good Characters Do Thoughtless Things

pretty is as pretty diesI always enjoy hearing from my readers. In fact, my readers’ comments can really influence my writing.

I’ve heard from a couple of readers since Pretty is as Pretty Dies was released in 2009 that they disagreed with a character’s actions in one scene. I’ll try to be a little vague here, since I don’t want to write in any spoilers.

My protagonist, octogenarian Myrtle Clover, was attacked and was rescued by a new neighbor who was, basically, a stranger to her because he’d recently moved in.

Myrtle and her police officer son, Red, have a little bit of a prickly relationship. They love each other, but they get on each others’ nerves. Badly. Myrtle is irritated by her son’s meddling. She insists on her independence and some respect. Red is irritated that Myrtle puts herself in bad situations and interferes in things he’d rather see her leave alone.

The new neighbor, after rescuing Myrtle, calls her son. It’s very late at night and Red is awakened by the call. He comes over, hears her story, fusses over her. They nettle each other a little. Myrtle stubbornly decides to stay with her neighbor who has fixed them coffees. Red goes back home and goes back to bed.

He shouldn’t have left her, say these readers.

It wasn’t a case of character motivation—if it was, then I’d definitely be paying attention. These two have something of a contentious relationship. The main reason for the tension is Myrtle’s desire to be taken seriously. She wants respect and independence. She wouldn’t have appreciated being carted back to her home by Red unless she wanted to go there.

But the readers disagreed with Red’s actions. They thought he was being thoughtless. That he wasn’t being a good son by not protecting her…regardless of whether she wanted that protection or not.

Both times the readers asked me about this, it was in person. Which is unfortunate because both times my automatic response was, “Oh, I totally understand what you’re saying. But that was the character’s choice. That’s what he chose to do. He was being thoughtless.”

Acting like our characters are alive is probably one of those things that gives writers a reputation for being a little crazy.

But I knew that this was a thoughtless, inattentive thing that this particular character would do in that circumstance.

I’ve thought about this a little lately, mainly because I’m about to address a book club in South Carolina in a couple of weeks for this book, and want to be prepared with something a little better to say than, “But that’s what the character did.”

I still really believe this nice guy would be thoughtless in this circumstance. Here it is, the middle of the night and he’s been pulled out of bed. He’s irritated, scared for his mother’s safety, and she’s still harping at him about how she’s completely fine and he needs to stop his fussing. I think I laid the groundwork in the early part of the book for him to behave that way. It doesn’t seem to be to be out of character, but it seems like something he’d do when tired, grouchy, and generally out of sorts.

When he was having a bad day.

What I think I would do if I wrote the book over again, is that even though I set up the motivation and the groundwork, I needed to have some sort of repercussion or consequence for that behavior.

My readers were outraged for Myrtle. I’m glad they liked her enough to want to protect her. They were quite fierce, both times, when they brought it up. I appreciated it.

I listen carefully to my editors' ideas. I listen really carefully to my readers'.

I think there’s sometimes an urge when we’re reading books, or maybe in life too, to see someone pay for a mistake. Even just a mild one. Or at least to get told off for it.

If I had to write it again, I’d have Red’s wife take him down a notch, when he got back home: “You did what? Left her over with some new neighbor she’s never met? After she’s been attacked? What?

Because vengeance can be sweet.

So, summing up, I think the better approach for having a nice guy (not, in this case, the protagonist, but an important character) behave thoughtlessly is to not only lay the groundwork for this type of behavior, but to have some sort of repercussion/consequence for this behavior or some sort of dressing down for it later.

Have you ever had a good guy do something thoughtless or imprudent? How did you approach it?