I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but the reason that I’m writing about it is a customer at work challenged me to write about it. We were talking about Patrick of Ireland and she said that she was delighted by what I told her, and equally delighted by my desire to share my admiration of him.
That segued into a discussion of heroes. We talked about that for some time (I work in a bookstore so this kind of conversation isn’t unusual) and when I mentioned I had started a blog for my thoughts, she encouraged me to write down some of what I had said to her.
So you’re stuck with my thoughts/mini-rant on heroes, readers and writers.
I’ll come out right here and tell you that I have stopped reading books and even stopped reading the work of an author who randomly kills off a hero, or makes a hero into a villain. The same applies to television shows. I stopped watching Castle because of what they did to one hero on the show. The writers thought it would be a good idea in the season finale resolve, to reveal that one of the main characters was corrupt and doing things “off sides” that made him as guilty as the bad guy the team had hunted all the previous season. Then they killed off the character, barely letting them redeem themselves.
The sense of shock was visceral. So was the reaction. They lost me as a viewer.
Why did I react so strongly? Because I’d been betrayed, along with the other characters. He hadn’t, until that moment, been portrayed as anything but a ‘white hat’. Some will argue that is just “good writing” to evoke that level of reaction. I would counter by pointing out that running over my foot with a car also will provoke a level of reaction on my part, but I wouldn’t say the person behind the wheels had good driving skills.
It’s fine to provoke thought and reaction in a reader. It’s good to do so, but you don’t need to betray them to do that.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got on writing, came from author Timothy Zahn. He said this at a book signing I was fortunate to attend in November 2006 : Never forget that the reader and the writer enter into a partnership the moment a book is opened.
He’s so right. One brings the words and their story, the other brings their intelligence and experience. The writer trusts the reader will stick through the tale until the end, the reader trusts that the writer is going to have something worth saying hidden within the words.
When the writers of Castle decided to make one of the ‘white hats’ a villain, they broke one of the unspoken rules of my partnership with them. Essentially, they lied. They let me think that a villain, was a white hat. That’s what hurt so badly. And they let me think it for nearly two years. I genuinely liked the character, and had absolutely no idea that there was anything nefarious about them.
And now, for the soap-box part of this post.
Don’t lie to your readers. You can fool them, and surprise them, but do it within the bounds of the partnership and in the right way.
- If you’re going to throw a twist, give a hint.
- If you’re going to kill off a main character, have a really good reason for doing so.
- Stay true to the archetype of your character
- Don’t write something solely for the sake of provoking a reaction in your reader.
- Deliver at the end of the story what you promised at the beginning of it.
Do these things, respect your partner and keep them safe, and they’ll be with you for a long, long time.
Encourage one another, Scribes.