Characters are only human…

One possible visualization of Walt and Danielle

The characters in our books may not actually be human, but the goal is to make the reader believe they are. That being said, I always find it amusing when a review has an issue with something one of the characters says or does. 

In my opinion, a reviewer has the right to take issue with any book—providing the issue exists. For example, I had a reviewer once slam one of my books because of all the things I pushed about Mormons in the story. There was NO mention of Mormons in that book.

When it comes to critiquing characters, it makes sense for a reviewer to note when a character says or does something completely foreign to the character the author has created—without any feasible explanation. For example, if Danielle shot and killed Lily in the first chapter of book 30, my readers would assume it must be some nightmare scene, or that wasn’t really Lily or Danielle. But if by the end of the book the readers realize it was in fact Lily and Danielle, and Danielle decided to kill Lily because Lily said something annoying, that would not only alienate readers, it would justifiably bring on the one-star reviews.

But aside from a character behaving out of character—I always shake my head when I get a negative review where the reviewer says something like, “The author said Portland was the capital of Oregon. Can’t the author use Google?” (This is purely an example, and not something from one of my books.)

My question to the reviewer, “Did the ‘author’ say that, or did a character?”  Nothing a fictional character says in a book should ever be taken as ‘fact’. After all, a character is only human, right? And humans make mistakes all the time.

The same is true for grammar issues. When a reviewer leaves comments about the poor grammar in the book, sometimes they are talking about the grammar in the dialogue, which is not a legitimate issue. Unless the character was an educated person and unlikely to speak in that manner.

I had one writer friend who had an English teacher edit his first books. It didn’t work out, because she was always trying to clean up the dialog and remove contractions. Her version was not how people really talk.

As for the grammar comments in reviews–as a reader of reviews, you need to take those with a hefty grain of salt and weigh the other reviews. If an overwhelming number of reviewers slam the grammar in a book, the author may have a problem. Yet if it is only a couple, maybe not. There have been times someone has pointed out a ‘mistake’ to me, only to discover they were wrong. (This was after I double checked with several professional editors.)

When reading a book, readers often get frustrated at how the characters behave and then slam the book in a review. They sometimes slam the author if a character behaves inappropriately, which I find amusing.

If a character in a book is a flaming misogynist, it doesn’t necessarily mean the author condones that behavior. After all, many of my characters murder people, and I don’t condone murder.

Personally, I strive to craft three-dimensional characters, those who have both negative and positive traits—like real people. I also believe a character should be realistically shaped by his or her past.

I remember a couple of reviews that slammed Walt; they felt he was creepy and too forward with Danielle. They failed to consider he was a man of his era. While it is nice to aspire to raising our current sons to treat women as equals and to respect boundaries, it’s not realistic to imagine a man from the 1920s suddenly appearing and immediately behaving according to today’s standards—or the standards we aspire to.

Real Life Character Development

I suspect authors who write successful stories involving relationships tend to be people watchers or amateur phycologists—the kind of person who tries to figure out what factors shape people or as the cliché says, what makes them tick. Or what makes them tick in a certain way.

Our relationships with others shape who we are.  Take marriage for example. Two people get together and marry, and it’s a good bet that ten years later each person from that marriage will be a different person from who they were before they met their spouse—even if the marriage dissolves before the ten-year mark—different from how they might have been had they married someone else.

I can see it in my own children. I see ways my daughter is a slightly different person because of her relationship with our son-in-law, and the same is true of our son and his wife. I am sure their spouses have also changed, yet from my viewpoint it’s impossible to say how.

What we hope for is that the spouses complement each other—or bring out the best traits in their mate. Unfortunately, some couple combinations are toxic, and they bring out the worse in each other—like Bonnie and Clyde.

When young and in-love we don’t always see the potential for a toxic relationship—such as one that might turn abusive down the road—yet those signs are probably there.

When I dated one of my first boyfriends I remember him saying, “A girlfriend of my will never own her own car.”  I was about 14 at the time and remember thinking to myself, “Well, I guess we won’t be dating in two years when I get my license.” I didn’t argue with him or debate the subject. I simply kept quiet and figured when that time came, we would not be together anyway.

However, an older and wiser me realizes that was a major red flag. This was a person who wanted to control his girlfriend. Had I foolishly fallen hopelessly in love with him (or imagined I had as girls do at that age) could I have allowed him to shape me into a submissive version of myself?

There was another red flag in that relationship. I remember once he overheard a conversation I’d had with one of my parent’s friends. The friend had asked me about my plans for the future. I went on to tell how I was going to college and spoke of all the things I wanted to do—none of which included this boyfriend or any relationship for that matter.

Later, my boyfriend scolded me for what I had said, telling me I was too boastful—over confident. I will admit I felt embarrassed and asked myself, “Had I spoken out of turn? Spoken too freely of my dreams?”

Fortunately, we broke up by the end of that school year, and the next year I changed high schools.

Had I married someone like that, I suspect I would be a very different person today. Although, I would like to think I wouldn’t have stayed with a controlling man. Yet, can I really say that? Can anyone?  Other circumstances surrounding us at the time we come to that road might have more to say about the outcome or how we respond than what’s in our hearts.

I never thought about it when I was a young girl, but I do believe we should be diligent in our close relationships. We need to look for those red flags and avoid going down a road we may later regret.

The man I married is worlds apart from my first boyfriend.  I married a man whose ego does not require me to be less so he can feel like more. And for that, I am every day grateful.

The writer in me probably thinks about these things a little more than the non-writer, because I am always mindful of what shapes those characters chattering away in my head. But, it might be a good idea for teenagers to be more aware of those red flags in potential relationships. It might save them a world of heartache. Of course, that probably won’t happen, because teenagers—and adults alike—like to imagine they can change someone. Yet they forget, in the process they too change.

Spending time with some real characters!

This week while The Ghost and the Bride is off with the beta readers, I will be spending time with two young people who inspired my character Evan MacDonald. Readers know young Evan as the police chief’s youngest son, who, like Danielle, can see ghosts.

The inspiration for that character came from my two grandchildren, Addison and Evan. I gave Evan MacDonald my grandson’s first name, and I made him the same age as my granddaughter.

The description of young Evan MacDonald was inspired by my grandson. Yet, I don’t think my Evan can see ghosts. Although…if you look at the photo (taken last year), maybe Evan has just stopped to chat up a spirit.