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Truth: The REAL Backbone of Comedy

In October of last year, I wrote a post called "Tragedy: The Backbone of Comedy." After showing how the basic structures of tragedies and comedies are the same, which is fairly "duh," I said, "A simple switch in tone and mood can flip one to the other."

When I wrote that post, I knew my attribution of humor to "tone and mood" was superficial. Comedies can have a dark tone or a light and fluffy one, and they work just as well either way. The wide variety of funny books and movies demonstrates how meaningless tone and mood are: Dr. Strangelove is slow and absurd, Airplane is zippy and zany, Charlie Chaplain films are sentimental, Lemony Snicket books are, as he warns the Reader, "filled with misery and woe," etc.

But I didn't know how to explain the real difference between tragedy and comedy, so I left it alone. And I kept plugging away at my work in progress, laboring under the assumption that comedy was something magical in the voice, something to do with pacing and word choice, something that was learned over time and couldn't be succinctly defined.

Then last week I discovered YouTube videos of an interview with Steve Kaplan, a seasoned comedy screenwriter/director and author of The Hidden Tools of Comedy: The Serious Business of Being Funny (you can watch the full-length video or pick and choose from segments by topic). Watching them during my lunch break, and adding what Steve says to my own understanding of the comedic, I had my "By Jove, he's got it" moment.

My new definition: Comedy is telling the truth when people expect a lie.

I've read advice from comedic writers who say you inject humor by throwing in the unexpected. This is probably why those writers' books aren't very popular. "Random" does not equal "funny." Sitting in my townhouse in my quiet suburban neighborhood, I don't expect gangsters to bust down my door and shoot me dead. But I wouldn't consider that terribly funny.

Other writers believe you can make anything humorous by quickening the pace. I was guilty of fueling that myth when I said, "Almost every 'serious' story turns comedic if you do it faster." But if a scene that's supposed to be funny isn't, you can't make it funny by doing it faster and louder. Walk into a movie theater and pick almost any big studio comedy, and you'll find oodles of fast and loud and very little funny (those horrible, horrible commercials for Sex Tape spring to mind).

Still other writers think you can turn anything funny by tossing in drugs, violence, and/or references to male genitalia. Sorry, but the word "testicles" cannot breathe life into a dead, rotting comedy.

No, the real backbone of comedy is truth. Specifically, the truth you're not "supposed" to say.

Heroic vs. Comedic Characters

In drama, both authors and readers operate under an elaborate conceit. Dramatic heroes are not real people. They're strong, sensitive, complicated, passionate, and oh so very serious. If they have flaws, they're chosen from a very specific set of acceptable ones: emotional vulnerability, stubbornness, hubris, etc.

They are not, for example, clumsy. Imagine if Hamlet walked out on the stage and said, "To be or not to..." and fell flat on his face.

The audience would burst out laughing. The conceit that Hamlet is an exclusively angry, philosophical, tortured prince would be destroyed—he'd be revealed to be a very real, red-faced young man in tights.

This is the real reason that playing Hamlet "faster" makes it funny. Fast, on its own, is not funny. But fast-forwarding strips away the conceit that this is a very important play about very important topics and it must be taken seriously.

A heroic character is one with all but one or two ignoble personality traits stripped out, leaving an ideal. A comedic character is one with the omitted traits left in. As the Average Joe or Jane, they can be weak, lazy, petty, oblivious, and downright silly.

Say a hologram of a beautiful princess pops out of a robot and tells the teenage hero he's her only hope to save the galaxy from the forces of darkness (or the old guy down the street is, whatever).

The heroic character thinks this is perfectly reasonable and promptly sets out with his trusty light saber to eradicate evil from the universe.

The comedic character says, "Heck no, I like my limbs where they are. I'm sure you're a very nice princess, give my regards to Dad, sayonara."

And a comedic scene is one in which people act like people, not like idealized heroes and heroines.

Say a ramshackle group of rebels invades the spaceship of the Big Bad Guy and takes over a control center. Central command calls the center to ask what's going on.

The heroic character prudently ignores the call or, being ever-prepared, cleanly impersonates a storm trooper and gives the appropriate response.

The comedic character answers the call nervously. "Uh...everything's perfectly all right now. We're fine. We're all fine here now, thank you. How are you?"

Surprise without Truth Isn't Funny

Imagine the following scene.

Guests in neat black suits and conservative dresses file into a funeral parlor. A portrait of an elderly man stands next to a casket heaped with flowers. His comparatively young widow cries quietly while her friends pat her on the back.

Then the door bursts open, and a beautiful woman marches in with a young boy in tow. The woman pushes past the other guests and stands before the casket. She holds the boy's hand firmly and tells him, "Tommy, say goodbye to your father."

Now let's predict how this scene would play out in different genres.

Soap Opera: The wife would faint dead away, her glamorous friends would react with stony faces and righteous rebukes, and the main players would take turns making eloquent and assertive speeches (e.g., "You will pay for what you've done to this family!").

Hard-Boiled Mystery: The detective would sit back and watch with a cold, critical eye as the pastor quietly leads the mistress and her son out of the parlor, the guests whispering behind their hands. He would think about motives and opportunities and how the man with his arm around the widow's shoulder is acting a little too familiar, and how the widow's show of surprise at the mistress's appearance was a little too practiced.

Blockbuster Hollywood Comedy: A cat fight would break out between the mistress and the widow, or the mistress and the widow's friends. A loud black or gay person would yell, "Oh HAIL no, she di-in't!" The casket would get knocked over and the dead man would come tumbling out with a hard-on under his burial suit, and someone would crack wise about rigor mortis while the guests held their noses and gagged at the smell.

In any of the above cases, the scene wouldn't be funny at all—especially in the comedy. Nobody acts like a real person. Nobody feels, for example, confused or out of their element. Nobody makes an authentically unexpected move. They all follow their established fictional roles to the letter.

How do you make it funny? Put a real person in. This person is, for example, the second cousin once removed of the deceased. He's never met the guy, but his dour Great Aunt Velma, who holds the family purse strings, has strongly hinted that anyone who fails to be convincingly heartbroken by the tragedy will be written out of her will.

He stands in line to pay his respects, but he has no idea what to say. He thinks he should probably pray with a somber expression. He rehearses in his head, Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death... He can feel Aunt Velma's beady eyes boring a hole in his back as he steps up to the casket.

And then the mistress appears, shoving him out of the way. Our man watches, agape, as she makes her bold declaration. The funeral parlor falls quiet. He looks around, but nobody makes a move. The widow is blinking dumbly, shocked out of her tears, and Aunt Velma's beady eyes are popping out of their sockets.

So what does our man do? Does he draw himself up and declare the hussy will pay for what she's done to this family? Does he coolly and calmly take charge of the situation like a hero, or shout obscenities like a clown?

No. Instead, he does what many real people do during a crisis: pretend that everything is okay. He bows his head, and into the awkward silence loudly recites, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."

Obviously, there's a difference between behaving realistically and behaving like a real person. Few people would make fools of themselves like our man above—most would stay quiet and do nothing. But that would be boring. A small amount of conceit is still necessary because this is, after all, fiction.

But the scene isn't funny when there's no authenticity at all. The people who made the Hollywood comedy version of the scene assumed the scene would be funny because it's wacky. But a wacky event isn't funny if the characters' reactions to it don't ring true.

Truth without Surprise Isn't Funny, Either

And the reverse, stating the truth when it's not unexpected isn't funny either. This is the fatal flaw of sophomoric humor. Crude humor is supposed to be funny simply because it's rude—it highlights things you're not supposed to talk about in polite conversation. But these days, "polite conversation" is exceedingly rare. Vulgarity is so far from unexpected that I'm actually shocked, shocked, when a so-called comedy for adults doesn't contain a single reference to defecation or penises.

Real humor isn't simply unvarnished honesty, but surprise honesty—honesty that defies the expectations that conventions have implanted in the audience.

In Dr. Strangelove, a nutcase US military officer sends his planes to attack Russia with nukes, which could trigger a Doomsday Device and end the world. American ideals and action movies have trained us to expect that, in this dire situation, the president will be very stoic and strong and do everything he can to stop the attack. Instead, while the world is about to end in 20 minutes, the president is on the phone with the Russian Premier saying, "I'm sorry too, Dmitri. I'm very sorry. All right, you're sorrier than I am. But I'm sorry as well. I'm as sorry as you are, Dmitri. Don't say that you're more sorry than I am because I'm capable of being just as sorry as you are. We're both sorry, all right?"

Or in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, King Arthur prances up to a castle on an invisible horse, his servant banging coconuts together. Yes, it's silly and mildly amusing. But it's not really funny until, after Arthur gives his royal introduction, the castle guard says, "You're using coconuts! You've got two empty halves of coconut and you're bangin' 'em together!"

1. At the time the movie was made, radio and theater trained us to suspend disbelief and accept that the sound of coconuts banging together meant the actors were riding horses, even if that's not what horse hooves sound like and there was obviously no real horse present. You don't expect another actor to point out the coconuts, any more than you expect a gangster in a black-and-white movie to aim a toy gun at someone and say, "This is a prop, but you's gonna pretend it's real, see?" (This particular gag probably worked better on the stage than it does in the movie, since a theater audience would have accepted the invisible horse without question.)

2. Plays, movies, and fairy tales teach us that people are supposed to worship kings like gods, bowing and scraping and doing everything they command. You don't expect a loyal subject to talk back to the king, or to forget about him and get distracted by a casual discussion of whether a swallow could carry a coconut.

3. Medieval legends and their numerous retellings portray King Arthur as a great and powerful leader. You don't expect Arthur to be a fool himself, plainly admitting to the coconuts with "So?" but continuing his royal speech anyway. The camera angle downwards also destroys the conceit—he's just a regular bloke in a funny hat, tiny and powerless compared to the castle wall and the empty fields around him, which makes his posturing all the more ridiculous.

That's what the "truth" part of comedy does—exposes people to be regular blokes even in the most dramatic situations. The funniest character isn't the zany or quirky or crazy one, it's the average one freaking out. John Cleese explained the evolution of Monty Python's acts, "We used to think that comedy was watching someone do something silly...we came to realize that comedy was watching somebody watch somebody do something silly."

The Secret to Funny: Stop Being Funny

So how do you write comedy? Stop trying to be funny.

When you're trying to be funny, it's very easy to fall into the trap of being fake. If there's a blank spot in your story and you ask yourself, What would be funny here?, you'll probably come up with something wacky. But wacky for the sake of wacky isn't funny.

What you should ask instead is the same thing you'd ask yourself when composing a dramatic story, What would my characters do here? The difference is that, when you're composing a drama full of heroes (or villains), you answer with what they should do. But in a comedy, you answer what they would do. What they would do might not seem funny at first, but rest assured, the funny is in there somewhere.

Example: A heroine wakes up with a hangover and finds her boss, whom she's always hated, in bed beside her.

What Hollywood says she would do: Scream her head off and hit him with a pillow.

What she should do: Be a calm, rational adult and wake him to discuss what happened and how they're going to deal with it.

What she would do: Blink at him, uncertain whether this is a dream or reality. She'd prefer to believe it's a dream. She'd lie back down and squeeze her eyes tight, hoping he'll vanish before she opens them again. When he wakes up and taps her on the shoulder, she'd curl up and ignore him. He'd ask, "Where's your bathroom?" and, after an awkward pause, she'd eek out, "Down the hall to the left."

Only the last option has the potential to be funny. Because people are so accustomed the Hollywood version, the "what she would do" scene subverts conventions with the unexpected truth that people avoid upsetting issues to the point of being ridiculous.

Sitcoms and movies can lazily fall back on loud-mouthed fools telling fart jokes, and people will laugh because decades of exposure to bad comedies have trained them to think "flatulence equals funny." But in written humor, there is no laugh track. There are no actors with bug-eyed expressions and flailing limbs. You have characters, word play, and truth—that's all. But really, that's all you need.

Who Is Your Audience? Or, Why I Don't Care What Your Heroine Ate for Breakfast

Sometimes I worry that my posts here send mixed messages. First I say, "Writing is communication, period. Write for your audience." And then I say, "Don't worry what other people think. Have confidence in yourself and your ideas."

These two opinions can seem conflicting, but they're really two parts of the same viewpoint. Put succinctly: "Write for your audience. Don't worry about people who aren't your audience."

Yes, you do have an audience.

I see a lot of writers brag, "I never think about genre when I write. Someone told me I write inspirational fiction, and I was so surprised because I'd never thought of my work that way!"

Being ignorant of trivial capitalist concerns like genre has long been a point of pride for "artists." But all of the doomed manuscripts I've read had one common root problem: the authors didn't know what they were writing or who they were writing it for.

For example, a woman asked me to critique a cozy mystery. After reading it, I said, "It's very cozy, but it's not a mystery. The heroine decided who the villain was in chapter three, and then all of the evidence fell neatly into her lap. Where are the other suspects? The clever clues? The scintillating twists and turns?"

And she said, "My heroine has psychic powers. I wanted the book to be about her using them to prove who the murderer is, not about her solving the case."

If you set out to write a mystery, it has to be a mystery. You can't label a book a cozy mystery and then deliver a cozy fantasy about a woman discovering her clairvoyant abilities. That's like dressing up your Chinese restaurant as a retro diner, and when customers order cheeseburgers you serve them kung pao chicken.

(And then when people complain that kung pao chicken isn't a cheeseburger, you get offended and say kung pao chicken is better, no one appreciates your vision and hard work, other customers have said that the chicken was the best cheeseburger they'd ever had, etc.)

Choose your audience wisely.

Good news: you choose your audience, not the other way around. And I believe for every bud of a story, you can find the right audience to fit.

The right audience might not be the one you originally intended. The acquaintance in my anecdote thought she was writing a cozy mystery for adults. But her book was all about the heroine experiencing first love, discovering and defining her identity, adjusting to the responsibilities of adulthood—classic themes of YA and New Adult novels. A simple change of label from "mystery" to "magical realism" and an adjustment in her protagonist's age from a twenty-something to a college student would better ensure that her work was placed into appreciative hands.

Similarly, many writers think they're writing YA because their protagonists are teenagers, but their style and subject material would be better received by adults. Or they think they're writing literary historicals in the tradition of Edith Wharton, when they're really writing romances in the tradition of Georgette Heyer.

But the writers in the biggest trouble are the ones who think they don't have a genre at all—that their book will be adored by "everybody." BS. Nothing is adored by everybody. You're always writing for somebody.

That somebody might not fit neatly into an established category like "middle-aged female romance reader" or "adolescent male sci-fi fan", but they're a somebody receptive to your purpose. Do you want to make people laugh about the silly oddities of modern life? Your audience is people who want to laugh. You want to make people ruminate on the darker realities of modern life? Your audience is people who want to ruminate. Trying to make people who want to laugh ruminate, or make people who want to ruminate laugh, is setting yourself up for failure.

Write for the audience you've chosen.

Every audience opens a book with certain expectations. And once you've chosen your audience, you must meet those expectations.

No, that doesn't mean you have to write cookie-cutter stories. When people write cookie-cutter stories, it means they couldn't be bothered to think about what readers are really after under the surface of overdone plots. They see the success of The Hunger Games and Divergent and assume people like dystopian YA novels about teenage girls fighting oppressive dictatorships, so they write more dystopian YA novels about teenage girls fighting oppressive dictatorships. But these big-name novels aren't popular because of their plots, they're popular because they offer excitement and adventure. The copycats, being neither exciting nor adventurous, do not give readers what they want.

To get to the root of your audience's expectations, you have to answer two questions:

  1. Why does your audience read?
  2. How does your audience read?

The why is pretty easy to figure out if you take the time to study the popular titles in your genre. Ignore the plots; the plots are just frames. What do you feel when you read them? Excited? Shocked? Heartbroken? Righteously angry? Warm and fuzzy? Is that the same way you want your readers to feel? If not, you might be in the wrong genre. Find a different one.

The how is tougher, because personal experience won't cut it. You'll need to get people in your target audience to read your work and tell you which parts they skipped and which caught their attention. If you're like me, you'll probably find two basic sets of readers.

One set will say, "I love the realism of your characters' thoughts and feelings, but the action sequences are weak. You should develop them. More thoughts and feelings!"

The other set will say, "The zippy action sequences are awesome, but all the thoughts and feelings are boooring. You should trim them. More zippy action!"

Members of the first set tend to have a taste for low-energy sentimental and cerebral genres: literary, romance, cozy mysteries, women's fiction, historicals, etc. Members of the second set gravitate towards the excitement and adventure in high-energy genres: sci-fi, fantasy, comedy, thrillers, chick lit, etc.

Of course it's not a cut-and-dry dichotomy—all readers want stories that have interesting plots, fascinating settings, and characters they care about. But it's still very important to know which set is your set, and to keep their reading habits in mind as you write.

And here's where I finally get to the alternative title of this post: I don't care what your heroine ate for breakfast.

Low-energy people care what your heroine ate for breakfast. They will hang on to every sip of hazelnut coffee and every nibble of whole wheat toast with butter and strawberry preserves. They each have their reasons for being interested in the breakfast—they're reading to dream of a more comfortable, worry-free life; they think every detail is significant in setting and character development; or they simply like food, and that's why they picked up a book with a picture of a scone on the cover.

But high-energy people will, upon stumbling into a two-page description of french toast with maple syrup and fresh-squeezed orange juice, either (a) skip to the good parts or (b) put the book down for good.

Depending on which genre I'm reading, I flip-flop between sets. If I was intrigued by the premise of a cozy mystery with a quaint country farmhouse on the cover, well, I accept that apple pancakes come with the territory. But if I picked up a book because it sounded like a grand adventure, and then I run into one rapturous ode to cinnamon rolls after another, I get frustrated. Where are my sword fights, damn it?

Other things I do not care about in high-energy genres:

  • How pretty the scenery is along the walk between point A, where something interesting happened, and point B, where something interesting will happen.

  • How delicious the love interest looks in whatever he's wearing in that scene, and how devastating his smile is, and how your heroine's heart goes pitter-patter and she blushes at the naughty thoughts that cross her mind.

  • How this situation reminds your heroine of those sunny afternoons with grandma before she passed away, or of the days when she and her husband were happy, or of that time in her childhood when her family went to the beach house and Mommy and Daddy fought and blah, blah, blah.

In high-energy genres, if a passage isn't directly relevant to the current story, it gets skipped. Of course you can't make things fun and exciting all the time, but anything that stops the forward movement of the story can be lethal. Put a low-energy book in these readers' hands, and they'll complain that "nothing happened" and "I fell asleep in chapter one."

On the other hand, if you fail to deliver a heavy dose of sap and/or profundity in low-energy genres, those readers will grumble. They'll complain that your book was shallow, commercial, a waste of money and time.

Ignore everyone else.

Because different sets of readers have different tastes, you will never please everybody. Say Reader A likes the book and Reader B hates it. Change it to suit Reader B, and Reader A will hate it. You have to choose one.

Here's where "having confidence in your ideas" comes into play, because people who aren't your audience will always say your book sucks. Every reader will have one inflexible ideal of "a good book," and they will try to make you fit it.

Most writers and avid readers are in the sentimental/cerebral set. So if you write high-energy thrillers, comedies, steampunk fantasies, etc., expect your fellow writers to tell you "develop" them with more thoughts and feelings and lengthy descriptions of Belgian waffles with whipped cream. Don't cave to the peer pressure and bog your story down with sap. They are not your audience.

Likewise, most people who aren't writers or avid readers are in the non-sentimental set. If you write thoughtful literary novels or heartwarming cozies, expect your thrill-seeking friends to tell you it's boring. Don't cut the heart out of your story by deleting all the thoughts and feelings and poetic setting descriptions. They are not your audience.

Of course it's always good to consider the views of people who disagree with you about your writing, because it may turn out they were right. But if all of the elements they criticize were deliberate choices on your part—they say the story is too slow and you intended it to be slow, or they say it's too zippy and you intended it to be zippy—then they're probably not your audience.

"Realistic" Characters: Individuals or Stereotypes?

"A popular teenage boy wouldn't play Pokemon. Isn't that a game for little kids?"

"A man wouldn't think that way. Sex and competition are always at the forefront of a man's mind."

"A young woman today wouldn't know Cheers. That's before her time."

As novelists, we see our characters as individuals. We spend years (or at least months) with them, developing their histories and personalities. We give them unique worldviews, unique tastes and hobbies, unique voices. We treat them like real people with real minds.

Or do we?

The three quotes above (slightly modified from their originals) came from the fingertips of fellow writers. These writers would agree wholeheartedly, I'm sure, that stereotypes are shallow. They've probably complained more than once of cardboard cut-out characters. They've called for more originality, more individuality, more fleshed-out protagonists who feel real.

And yet, at the first whiff of individuality—the first toe over the line of an established stereotype—they say, "Person X of Demographic Y wouldn't think or act that way." The unspoken assumption: "All people of Demographic Y think and act exactly the same."

Characters are Ideals

As I wrote last November, people don't expect a protagonist to act like a real person. They expect him or her to act like a Reasonable Person, an ideal. Not a perfect ideal, but an abstract one—a representation of how a decent member of society should act under the circumstances.

Example: A little girl of 5 or 6 is wandering lost and alone in a crowded mall. Most real people will ignore her. They'll tell themselves they don't have the time, someone else will take care of her, the girl's mother could be just around the corner and would scream "pedophile!" etc. In social experiments with this exact setup, 40 to 60 minutes have passed before a single passerby among hundreds stopped to help.

But if your heroine ignores a lost little girl, readers will get very angry. That's not the way a woman is supposed to behave, even if that's the way most real women do (including, logically, the readers themselves).

Even in lesser matters, if your protagonist doesn't conform to the stereotype he or she is "supposed" to fit based on age, sex, ethnicity, etc., your fellow writers and readers will complain.

Example: Your heroine is twenty-something years old and mentions that she loved the Borrowers books as a girl.

Your fellow writers' reaction: This is unrealistic because the Borrowers series ended in the early 1980s, and therefore nobody growing up in the 1990s would have read them. Kids in the 1990s only read series that were written in the 1990s, like The Baby-sitters Club and Goosebumps, because all the books from previous decades vanished into thin air the moment they fell out of vogue. Duh.

The same rule applies to music, movies, etc.—people are only "supposed" to know the media that was current and popular in "their time." She's a teenager in 2014 and her favorite band is Heart? Wrong. Her favorite actor is Matt Damon? Also wrong. You're clearly out of touch with today's young people, because every single teenage girl on the planet listens to One Direction and swoons for Taylor Lautner.

Characters are "Me"

It can be difficult for people to accept, or even fully grasp, that others live and think differently than they do. I have been sternly informed that the cycle of poverty doesn't exist, and that unemployed people are simply lazy. I have also been sternly informed that nobody would ever say that the cycle of poverty doesn't exist or that unemployed people are simply lazy.

When people read books, they project themselves and their experiences onto the page. If a character is the same age and/or sex as the readers, the readers don't see that character as a unique individual. They see "me." E.g., when a YA reader comments derisively that "a sixteen-year-old girl wouldn't listen to Heart," what she means is, "I don't listen to Heart, so none of the other twenty million teens in America would either."

If the readers are in a different demographic than the character, they'll instead use people they know as a reference. E.g., the critic might not be a teenager, but her niece is. Her niece has never heard of Heart or Matt Damon. Therefore, the tastes of your teenage heroine are unrealistic.

And if the readers don't know anybody in that demographic personally, they'll fall back on stereotypes they've learned from other media, whether those stereotypes defy common sense or not. E.g., they don't actually know any immigrants from Asia, but Asian characters in movies and TV shows speak in clipped, broken English. Your Asian immigrant has a slight accent, but otherwise she speaks like an American. Unrealistic. If someone has an accent, she must also have terrible grammar and a tiny vocabulary.

So what can you do about it?

Nothing, really.

A reader's definition of "realistic" depends on his or her perception of "reality." Nobody's reality is exactly the same as someone else's reality. So you will never be able to create a work of fiction that's consistent with anyone's reality but your own.

Oh, you can try. You can smash your characters into tiny, rigid boxes. You can listen to the people who say it's unrealistic for Person X of Demographic Y to have any qualities or preferences outside the norm. You can turn your hero into every other writer's hero, hoping you can make everybody happy.

Or you can smile, say, "Thank you for your input," and forget about them. People will whip out their big bag o' stereotypes every time they open a book. It's unavoidable. If the back cover says a heroine is "forty-five" and "divorced," before the first sentence readers have already built her entire character and history in their heads, based on stereotypes and the middle-aged divorcees they've known and read about.

I've had people comment on the first page of a manuscript that the main character was unrealistic. The first page. They read just enough to learn names and hair colors, and "Um, I don't think a brunette named Sally would say that." Some beta readers suggested rewrites that turned the protagonists into completely different people before they'd even reached page two.

Writer A: "My book opens in a ritzy Manhattan office. The heroine is a quick-witted go-getter named Elizabeth...."

Writer B: "No, she's not. She's a sweet ingenue with a heart of gold. She grew up in Texas and goes by Lizzie."

Writer A: "But..."

Writer B (firmly): "Lizzie."

No matter how you bend and shape your characters to suit the "realism" standards of other people, you will never make everybody happy. All you'll do is make yourself very unhappy by compromising your ideas.

So unless your character is behaving truly OOC, and when you think about it he or she as an individual—not as a representative of Demographic Y—would not think or act the way you've written, I say stick to your guns. You're writing the characters in your head, not someone else's.

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