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BS Writing Advice: Ideals vs. Reality

Most of the craft advice offered by writers, including me, is 100% unverified opinion. We don't do in-depth analyses of bestselling works across genres to determine what makes a protagonist "likeable" vs. "unlikeable." We don't compare books with differing story structures against the frequencies of certain keywords in Amazon reviews to pinpoint what makes a book "boring" vs. "unputdownable." We just speculate what readers' responses will be to our writing based on our own reading experiences. Half-listening to beta reader feedback is about as scientific as we get.

Writing is an "art," not an exact science, so most of the time our off-the-cuff theorizing is okay. However, because we base our opinions on gut feelings and personal tastes, it is very easy to confound how readers actually behave with how we wish they did.

Here are some common pieces of advice that writers love to pass around because they support warm and fuzzy artistic ideals, and not because they're true.

1. Protagonists don't have to be likeable. They just have to be interesting.

Earlier this year, a literary catfight broke out when Publishers Weekly asked a certain author whether she would like to be friends with her novel's protagonist, a rage-filled wannabe artist turned creepy stalker. The author snapped, "For heaven's sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? If you're reading to find friends, you're in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities."

The academic elite can debate the place of likeability in evaluations of literary merit all they like, but the vast majority of flesh-and-blood readers must like the main character to enjoy a book. They don't read to "find life"—they live life every day, and it's terribly disappointing. They read to find a version of life that isn't life, to experience emotional highs and lows that mundane reality can't offer. To do this, they must identify with the protagonist to a certain degree.

What makes an imaginary character likeable isn't necessarily what makes a real person likeable. In real life, other people are other people. In a story, other people are us. We want our real-life friends to be pleasant and obliging, to cause little trouble, to be conveniently available when we want them but never pushy when we don't. In other words, we like our friends to be supporting characters. Protagonists are, obviously, not supporting characters. Rather, they're vessels for ourselves.

Take Bella Swan, the heroine of the Twilight series. Bella would make a lousy friend. She's sarcastic and antisocial. She's always moping around, obsessing over her boyfriend. But teenage girls love her as a protagonist. Though they wouldn't want to hang out with her, they'd love to be her—getting rescued and fussed over by a pretty, powerful man. They wish they could be snarky and mopey, and never lift a finger to make themselves attractive to others, and handsome boys would fight to the death for the privilege of dating them anyway.

This makes Bella a "likeable" character in YA. What makes protagonists "likeable" in other genres varies. Hard-boiled detectives and international spies have sharp wits and masculine vices (drinking, smoking, womanizing/man-eating, bloodlust for violence, etc.). They're likeable because mystery/thriller readers like to pretend they're equally witty bad-asses who could triumph over evil, given the chance. Romance heroines come in flavors of uptight proper lady, fiery-tempered tomboy, shy and pure-hearted maiden, etc., because modern women like to fancy they are one and all of those things. Children's and middle-grade protagonists tend to have the originality and definition of a stick figure. Young readers don't identify with heroes and heroines too different from themselves, so the safest route is to present a blank slate with shallow attributes only (e.g., age, hair/eye color, and favorite hobbies).

Readers can get annoyed by side characters, villains, and even romantic interests, but they can't stand to get annoyed by the main character. If they don't like the main character from page one, they will most likely not buy the book. If they do buy the book, they will most likely lose steam before they finish it. Then they'll complain about it. For all the certain author's indignation, the highlighted comments on Amazon for the book in question are not complimentary.

  • "I didn't believe in the main character."
  • "The problem with [this book] for me was that I just didn't like any of the characters—particularly not the protagonist/narrator."
  • "It did not get my interest from the beginning...I thought she'd be more interesting as a character, but she wasn't."

(Note: Review snippets modified for grammar.)

This author can wish that readers want unforgiving portraits of humanity as hard as she pleases. In reality, she has a lot of readers who bravely persevered through a few unpleasant chapters, then put her book down for good.

2. Unrealistic stories are shallow. Good writing captures life.

(a) See above re: Why People Read.

(b) People read fiction through a certain mental filter. They will accept the outrageous, but will criticize the mundane. For example, people will easily accept the fact that Edward Cullen is a 105-year-old vampire with the emotional maturity of a 17-year-old boy. But they will take exception to his "unrealistic" heroism and physical perfection. People say, "The character of Edward Cullen is unrealistic because he's super strong, super rich, and super pretty." They don't say, "The character of Edward Cullen is unrealistic because he's a freaking vampire."

This morning I started to read John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. I'm only 15% of the way in, so I won't pass any judgements on the whole, but from the first three chapters I can say this: For an oft-cited example of "realistic fiction" for teens, it is totally, unabashedly unrealistic.

The 16-year-old heroine has an intelligence, humility, and philosophical maturity rarely (if ever) seen in adults. Her love interest is impossibly gorgeous and impossibly witty. They speak as if they've rehearsed the dialogue in advance, with lengthy soliloquies on the inevitable oblivion of humanity and "existentially fraught free throws." I don't even recognize some of the vocabulary coming out of these teenagers' mouths, and I got a perfectly respectable score on the verbal section of the GRE.

But few people would balk at this. Unrealistically witty dialogue is an accepted staple of fiction. It's necessary, even. Have you ever transcribed a natural conversation? It's painful. People don't speak in complete sentences. They speak in nonlinear fragments and run-ons. They have annoying ticks like inserting "um" and "or whatever" every few words, and they say very simple things in absurdly convoluted and oblique ways. Creating a "realistic" yet coherent conversation in print is impossible.

When reviewers complain that a story element is "unrealistic," their real complaint is usually something else. When they say a handsome billionaire falling for a mousy secretary is "unrealistic," they're really saying that the characters were underdeveloped and their romance was flat and contrived. When they say the pat deus ex machina at the end was "unrealistic," they're really saying that it felt cheap. (In general, when people complain about the ending, the problem isn't the ending. The problem is the middle leading up to it.)

Stories aren't meant to be 100% realistic. They're meant to be compact dilutions of reality packaged and polished for entertainment and allegory. People don't go into a work of fiction expecting the Historic Annals of Jane Doe. They expect Jane Doe's story to follow a standard structure that doesn't exist in real life. Depriving readers of the familiar structure because it's "unrealistic" can be cruel and, frankly, pretentious.

In Minding Frankie, Lisa, a beautiful and level-headed graphic designer, is in an unstable relationship with manipulative playboy Antoine. She meets the main character, Noel, in a business course at the local college. They become fast friends. When she runs away from her parents' toxic home, she ends up on Noel's doorstep. They move in together and, with Noel's infant daughter Frankie, form a cute patchwork family. Lisa realizes that she would be much happier with a gentle man like Noel than with a cad like Antoine. Frankie learns to talk and calls Lisa "Mama." We all know where this is headed.

Then on page 243, the evil social worker Moira has her sudden change of heart and decides to stop trying to take Frankie away.

In a twisted way, she would prefer it if these two awkward, lonely people—Lisa and Noel—should find happiness and beat their demons through this child. If it were Hollywood, they would also find great happiness in each other.

Because Binchy wanted to avoid "Hollywood" cliches, she kept their relationship strictly platonic. She threw in some random woman at the last minute whom Noel, with no build-up whatsoever, starts to date. Lisa stays with her immature leech of a boyfriend until she snaps out of it and leaves town for a new job. The End.

Yes, this is how real people act. But this book made me angry. I felt like Binchy was yanking my chain, deliberately invoking tropes so she could subvert them to make a point. If you use a rom-com setup, you have to deliver a rom-com resolution. If you don't intend to have a Happily Ever After, don't mislead readers with the fairy tale structure in the first place.

3. Good stories sell books. Just write good stories and the money will follow.

This is one of those widespread platitudes that looks like an obvious truth on the surface, but it's utter nonsense if you think about it.

The logic: If you write good stories, people will like your work. If they like your work, they will buy more of it and recommend it to friends. Your fame and popularity will grow slowly but surely in proportion to the quality of your work.

The flaw: Nobody knows if a story is good until after they've read it.

In order for people to read your stories, they have to (a) find them and (b) buy them. Whether they find them depends on a lot of factors, but mostly on two: genre and blind luck. If you're in a tiny niche genre, you have better chances of people stumbling upon your work. If you're in a popular one, competing for readers' attention and time with tens of thousands of bestsellers and midlisters, it's up to blind luck.

Part of the "quality = sales" logic is that people will recommend good books to their friends. But people who recommend books are a tiny subset of readers. People who rate and review them are an even tinier fringe subset of readers who, more often than not, have ulterior motives for offering a detailed critique of a book for the benefit of unspecified strangers. And then, these few habitual recommenders and reviewers will only praise an extraordinary few titles to an extraordinary few friends with the same tastes and interests. By definition, your book is more likely to be ordinary than extraordinary, so the only ones who will spread the title by word of mouth are your parents and people who owe you favors.

But say that, despite the odds, someone hears about your book or spots it in the Kindle store.

  1. The cover art must intrigue them enough to make them click on the thumbnail.
  2. The description must appeal to them enough to make them open the preview.
  3. The first page must hook them strongly enough to make them want to read the rest.
  4. The customer and editorial reviews must be impressive and flawless enough to make them feel comfortable spending their money.

The process for evaluating a physical book is the same, but with added hurdles because the price is higher, there are no customer reviews handy for reassurance, and it has to be the sort of book people aren't embarrassed to be seen purchasing.

In short, the two things that sell books are hype and marketing. Story quality does not. There is no mystical pink glow emanating from high-quality books that tells potential customers, "This story is good!" If there were, the makeup of the top 100 books on Amazon would be very different.


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