A writer friend told me about a reader who got angry with a character in her draft novel. This character tried to control the actions of his lady love, and, worse, had not been completely frank. That anger made me think.
Enjoyment, intrigue, excitement – yes those are emotions you want your readers to have. But anger? And was their anger with the character or the author? The situation struck a chord with me because I’ve also encountered anger recently from writing colleagues.
Anger is a disturbing and scary reaction to provoke. As a writer, it makes you wonder if you’re doing something wrong. Our instinctive response to anger is usually to conciliate or to strike back. Conciliation can lead to messing up a storyline. To strike back is, of course, human but very stupid. Anger generally tells you the reader is reacting to something in themselves.
My friend had made her character a little more flawed, a little more like a real person. That can only be good. But of course she worried that she was risking alienating her readers. She compromised her intention and wrote a chapter that didn’t work.
This made me consider my own reactions to readers’ anger and what the lessons might be. I’ve braved some anger in my writers’ group towards my novel The Golden Illusion. And also towards the story that I’m working on for the Sunday Times competition.
What do these stories have in common? Unsympathetic characters is the most obvious thing. Ruairi, the main character in The Golden Illusion, is charming but manipulative. Margaret, protagonist of the Sunday Times story has many traditional working-class values but is also racist. Do your readers have to like your characters? No, not necessarily, but they have to find them interesting. It also helps if the characters go on a journey and end up more sympathetic than at the start. Ruairi and Margaret follow such journeys. I guess the anger shows that neither Margaret nor Ruairi are leaving readers cold. You can’t be angry about something if you don’t care.
One friend apologised later for the ferocity of her reaction to Ruairi. She had said she found Ruairi’s seduction of a woman he meets in a bar unbelievable. She confessed she was, in fact, angry that that the woman succumbs.
In Margaret’s case, there’s an added element. The story is overtly political, a response to the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. The British learn early in life not to talk about politics or religion in polite company. But then, I don’t think the conversation between a writer and a reader has much to do with politeness.
Writing political stories is, of course, risky. It divides your readers and can lead some of them to see you as “preaching”. When that happens, they’re probably angry with you rather than your character. It’s an odd fact that portraying a politics is often seen as “telling me what to think” while depicting any other facet of personality rarely provokes such a reaction. I’ve never had a reader tell me that they felt manipulated by a character’s selfishness or courage. In my defence against the charge of “preachiness”, Margaret’s fear and racism isn’t defeated by her friend’s political arguments, but by music.
The up-side of being political is that it’s topical. So, while it may turn off some readers, it may engage others.
And I guess this is the main lesson – you can’t please all the readers all the time, so cast your reading net wide. A writer has no choice but to walk the tightrope of simultaneously believing in their work and being open to criticism. I got very disheartened by colleagues savaging The Golden Illusion and had decided it was a bad book. That was until another writer read it and loved it. In fact she loves it more than I do and restored my confidence in the novel. So it pays to get lots of opinions.