When it comes to how I feel about a character in a story I wrote, or how I want a reader to feel about a character in the story, I like things to be vague. Sure, it’s obvious in some of my stories who I think is truly a “hero” and who is really a “villain” through and through. However, in real life, I feel that most people and situations have nuance. Hardly anything is black and white, especially where human emotions are involved.
Even a bully can be looked at sympathetically.
A hero can be greatly flawed.
I’ve been told by people that two of my characters seem almost “too perfect.” Those characters are Will from A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT OF NORMAL and Ian from A SURPLUS OF LIGHT. Will is “too patient, too understanding and kind.” Ian is the same but also “too smart, too self-contained and restrained.”
But here is the nuance. Both characters deny themselves so much in order to be these things. They deny themselves a love life, having friends, experiencing life as they normally would, in order to protect those they love or to keep themselves safe from heartbreak. Will won’t allow himself to have a boyfriend or have a full life because he is afraid it will keep him from being the best brother he can be to Noah. Ian won’t be friends with others or have a boyfriend because he has a target on his back as the “bad kid,” and he doesn’t want to take the chance he’ll be rejected for the same reason. They both have so much sorrow in their lives, they aren’t fully living like other people.
A lot of people see this as heroic and selfless. But is it?
Could it be fear? Could the thing they fear and the way they deal with it be the force field they carry with them through life to stave off any additional hurt that may come their way? Are they denying themselves…or are they terrified of opening their hearts?
When I write a story, I try hard to not beat readers over the head with the message I am trying to get across. The most important thing to me is that the reader is made to feel and think…something. To maybe think about a person who is different from them in a way that they hadn’t before. I want the reader to consider why they feel the way they do about certain topics. To realize that people who look or love differently than them are really not all that different. Additionally, I want them to see that everybody, regardless of what they look like, where they come from, or who they love, is a complex creature.
It’s confusing to me that readers see Ian and Will as “too perfect” because I see them as two of my most deeply flawed protagonists. But because they are not flawed in a way that affects others, most people don’t consider their flaws. If a bully calls a character a bad name, people easily see the bully’s flaws. But if a character’s flaws affect no one but themselves, it’s a little more difficult to immediately recognize.
For me, Will and Ian represented the things I hate most about myself. Extreme passivity and inaction that cause someone to be labeled a “nice person.” Being passive and not acting simply because you don’t want to ruffle feathers or hurt feelings is not a strength. While it often makes others happy, it limits the human experience of a person. It makes them incomplete as a human being.
Regardless, I don’t worry about it too much. People can feel that Ian and Will are “too perfect”–or anything they want to feel. Every reader has a right to their own feelings about the work. I won’t begrudge anyone that right. What a person feels is almost always valid.
Besides, as I’ve said, I’m not here to bonk people over the head with the message I am trying to get across in my stories. All I can do is write the stories and people take what they want from them. Good or bad, the reader takes away whatever it is they take away.
That is another reason that I don’t engage with reviews or discussions about my books.
Once a person finishes reading a book, they have their initial thoughts and reactions about what they’ve just experienced. And if they’re anything like me, they will continue to think about those thoughts and reactions for a few days or weeks afterward. Maybe their thoughts will change. Maybe they’ll get to the place I was steering them toward. Maybe they won’t. It doesn’t matter.
Perception is everything. There are a million ways to live, experience, and perceive the human experience. Reading is a human experience. Humans are–as far as I know–the only creatures in the universe who do it. So, who am I to tell them that their perception of a character is wrong?
Advice I would give any writer–if they asked–is that once you release your baby out into the world, let it go. You no longer have control over it. You could have written a story that is technically perfect, that has a perfect plot, and that professional reviewers thought is astoundingly good. But your average reader doesn’t look at those things. They read for fun, to learn, to escape from life. That comes with a different lens that your story will be viewed through. One you can’t control. Letting go is a a deep exhale that you didn’t know you needed. If you’re lucky, maybe the reader will get to the place you wanted them to get to by the end of the book.
Tremendous Love & Thanks,