Thursday, January 04, 2007

Characters We Just Don’t Get

Ever have a friend gush to you about his or her favorite novel, when you hated the main character with such a passion you couldn’t get more than a quarter of the way through the book?

I frequently used to have this problem with romance novels. To me, many romance heroes are abusive jerks, and far too many romance heroines are weak, manipulative ninnies. For example, I was outraged by the behavior of the hero in WHTNEY, MY LOVE, and wanted to slap the heroine. Yet one constantly sees that book listed as an “all time favorite.” Why? I’ll never understand it.

Many readers will tell you they like characters who are honorable and courageous. Yet people’s definitions of what is honorable and courageous varies. And what about the spectrum of other possible characteristics? What about nonconformity? Independence? Some readers like characters with those traits. Others find them disturbing. Some readers can identify with a heroine who is passive, conventional, even backbiting. Other readers are such thoughtless bigots they never notice behavior someone else might find highly objectionable.

I’m not a typical female. Does that make it hard for me to write books that will appeal to many women? I suspect so. I’ve had so many readers tell me they love my heroes…but they frequently have problems with my heroines. Evidently they simply can’t identify with the kind of women I admire or find interesting.

The problem is, we can only write about heroes and heroines we personally find heroic. I recently had a reader take me to task for making Sebastian St. Cyr “politically correct” and therefore “historically inaccurate;” she said no one born in the 18th century would have his attitudes toward women or slavery or racial genocide. She was wrong, of course; there were indeed men in the 18th and 19th centuries who believed passionately in gender and racial equality. As a historian, I wrote an entire nonfiction book on the subject! Yes, such philosophies were rare in Regency England, but they existed. There have always been free thinkers in every society (my critic, obviously, is not one).

Nevertheless, it occurs to me that even if it was impossible for Sebastian to have held such open-minded ideas in the early 19th century, I still wouldn’t be able to portray him as a sexist bigot. Why? Because I couldn’t respect him, let alone like him. And who wants to spend so many years of their life, day after day, writing about a hero they don’t like?

On a side note...

I've had some questions about post-Katrina New Orleans, so next time, I'll talk about the state of my city.


Anonymous said...

Whitney, My Love is my favorite book of all time! I'll agree that people either love or hate it, but I love it! That's the beauty of books, there's something for everyone out there.

cs harris said...

It really is funny how people can react so differently to a character. There really is a book for everyone--and a reader for every book!

Anonymous said...

Here's a heretical statement for a well-brought-up Southern lady like me: I just don't get what people see in Scarlett O'Hara. I read Gone with the Wind for a popular literature class in college, and I wanted to smack Scarlett for being a ninny in pretty much every chapter. But that's just me.

Anonymous said...

I've had extremely long and heated debates with friends over characters I just adored (including those from Whitney, My Love) and those I've hated. The fact that a character can illicit such emotion continues to amaze me. Again, the power of books.

Whether I love him or hate him, as long as I don't forget the character as soon as I close the book, in my opinion, the writer has done his or her job.

Great topic!

Anonymous said...

A recent experience I had with this was in reading White Oleander. It seems that Laura liked the young female character in that book and sort of thought I would too, but instead, I liked pretty much everything about the book except that character.