Sunday, March 21, 2010

When Characters Are Their Own Worst Enemies

I finished reading a book today that's been troubling me for the past week or so. I thought about blogging about it earlier, actually, but I thought it best to wait until I was done.

I don't want to bad-mouth other authors in my genre, and I don't want to spoil this book for people who haven't read it yet, so I'm not going to name it. I will describe it, however. It's a book that was written by a college dropout in his early twenties. It originally came out in the mid-80s and was recently reissued. If I had read it when it was first published, I would have been enthralled with it, as it features one of my favorite mythical animals. As an adult writer, I'm more critical. The central premise changes the laws of physics in a way that doesn't make sense. I knew that from reading the blurb but still read it anyway. I've seen online reviews complaining about the inconsistent world-building and undeveloped antagonist, but the issues I want to discuss involve the two main characters. I'll refer to them as A and P.

The antagonist wants something from A that she can't give up. A and P decide that they don't want to be on the run for the rest of their lives, so they decide to confront him in his stronghold. This is information from the blurb on the back, so it's no surprise to me. What did bother me was the way they went about it. They knew the antagonist has many people working for him, some of them quite dangerous. It is also impossible to disguise A. So what do they do? They march into their enemy's lair in broad daylight, making no plans to scout the area or obtain allies of their own first. They live in a dangerous world and have had to defend themselves before; in other situations they're more cautious. They should know better than to do this. Needless to say, things go very wrong. This disaster is important for later plot events, but I still want to smack A and P upside their heads for being so foolish.

More foolishness occurs at the end, another point that readers complain about. It's hard to discuss without saying too much, but A and P both do some things that result in an irreparable rift in their relationship. Given how important this relationship is to both of them, it's hard to believe they would let this happen, and under normal circumstances, I don't think it would have. But their motives for acting like this aren't explored, and they don't even discuss their actions with each other afterward. I think that's what makes the ending so disappointing -- that these two characters sabotage their own long-term goals when they didn't have to; they let short-term instincts override them. I think the author felt at the time that he was writing as honestly as he knew (he says as much in the afterword), and perhaps he did. But perhaps if he knew more about characterization and motive when he wrote this novel, he could have made A and P's actions more credible.

What's the take-home lesson for other writers? You can always learn something from a book, even if you don't like it. And when you're writing your own stories, try to make your characters' reasons for doing something clear to your readers. Your readers may not always agree that your characters are taking the best course of action, but you don't want your characters acting against their own interests just for plot's sake either.


Ann said...

I agree a character's actions must be believable. I read a book last summer and the main character just aggravated me. I made myself finish the book, but I really wanted to give the MC a good shake and tell her to get a grip.

Says she who has not published!! :)

Sandra said...

Thanks for responding, Ann! It's nice to know someone else agrees with me.

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