Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Monkeys Behaving Badly - Writer Versus Character Versus Audience

By Aaron Michael Ritchey

Something came up at my critique that completely caught my fascination. I was writing a scene in a short story where it’s apparent to the reader that my hero’s boss was actually Jack the Ripper. The hero of the story would never even consider that a possibility. But I was told that if the hero doesn’t make the same leap as the reader, it won’t be believable.
Are you with me, so far?
So as the writer, do I write the scene for the audience? Or do I write the scene for the character?

For all of my writing career, I chose my characters over my audience. I follow the characters in my books, I let them dictate to me how they react to the story I’ve plotted. I’m a pantser, but only up to a point. I know what needs to happen, and I whip characters when I need to, but I also honor their reality.

Should I?

One of my terrible habits that I need to break is writing only for myself. I write what I think is cool, what I want to read about, what I want to experience. Audience? What audience? I am an audience of one. I got a steely-cold lesson about this when I wrote a book for my daughter, without really keeping the audience in mind. You know what? She couldn’t read it. Not a bit. And she wasn’t too shy about telling me. Ouch.
So yes, if I want to continue to publish books, I need to consider the audience. Audience definitely trumps writer, I think. But what about audience versus character?

Ideally, sure, you’d have both. Characters that react like the reader expects and that the reader likes. But aren’t people cool who don’t always do as they’re told? Being human is part Divine wisdom, part Pride and Prejudice politeness, and part monkey, throwing poop. 
Flat characters bore me. Characters who know as much as the reader bore me. What I like? Complex, conflicted characters, struggling to be good, but choosing to be bad, then living with the consequences. Who is more interesting, Luke Skywalker or Han Solo?
What did I do in my Jack the Ripper story? I had the character think his boss might be a murderer, then reject the idea. I threw a bone to the reader. ‘Cause I’m a good little soldier.
But deep down, I think character trumps reader. Character and story - if you are true to those twin gods, I think the readers will tag along and be grateful for the truth.

About the Writer: YA Paranormal author Aaron Michael Ritchey has penned a dozen manuscripts in his 20 years as a writer. When he isn’t slapping around his muse, Aaron cycles to look fabulous, works in medical technologies, and keeps his family in silks and furs. His first novel, The Never Prayer, hit the streets on March 29, 2012.  Most recently, his work appears in the steampunk anthology The Penny Dread Tales Volume III.


  1. As a reader, I don't mind if a character doesn't act or react the way I expect them to. That's part of the fun of reading--seeing how characters use their brains or brawn to get themselves out of bad situations.

    What I don't like is when characters are too clueless to figure out the breadcrumbs the author is so obviously sprinkling for the reader. That's when then the Holy Trinity (author-character-reader) gets thrown out of balance. I get annoyed when I figure something out (a major clue or plot point), but the author lets the character continue to stumble blindly through page after page after page. Why is this annoying to me as a reader? Because the author is too busy wasting pages drawing out the suspense / drama / mystery for a dumb character to see that the story has long ago stopped being suspenseful / dramatic / mysterious for the reader.

    In short, I prefer smart characters and admire authors who give their characters intellect-challenging obstacles. Then I feel challenged and rewarded as a reader. But as soon as I see a hint of "dumb character alert" in anything I'm reading, I stop reading.

  2. I think you are absolutely right to write the stories You want to read. I think the story for your daughter was, perhaps, not Age appropriate which is totally different than writing a story for the reader.

    If you're writing a YA book you have different characters and conflicts than you would if you were writing an MG or Board Book because of the Age of your audience and the life experiences they have had so far. Typically, an MG story wouldn't be centered around sex, drugs and rock-n-roll because those aren't the pertinent issues to that age group, where for YA readers those are central issues in their worlds.

    Also, the reader has the advantage of seeing the broad view of a story, what the villain is doing behind the curtain while the Main Characters are off getting a latte. Readers Should know more than the MC's do, that's part of the fun of reading a story, getting the God's eye view of how all of the pieces fit together. I agree that the MC's shouldn't be so stupid they shouldn't be allowed out unaccompanied but they also shouldn't be omniscient. The MC can note that the villain is creepy without thinking 'murderer.' I haven't met anyone that I thought was a murderer. I've met people I thought were child molesters, sex traffickers, drug dealers, spouse abusers, generically too creepy to make eye contact, but not a murderer.

    I think writing for the audience is the same as turning yourself inside out to make sure everyone loves you. They won't no matter what you do. So, write your stories Your way. The people who share your tastes Are Your Audience so, you are writing for them. You're just not writing for everyone else and that's good and right and as it should be.

  3. Angie Hodapp, stupid characters, seriously don't bother me. Not even in the slasher movies because hey, when there's a ax-murdere on the loose, skinny dipping makes perfect sense.

    LaughingPaws, yeah, I wrote an MG book for my daughter and there wasn't any sex, drugs, or rock n roll, but too much angst. In the re-write, I'm making it more plot, less character. And more monster 'cause everybody likes a monster.

    As for writing for me versus my audience, gotta say, I am a very small segment of society. I adore grotesque, surreal fiction and I adore Nicholas Sparks. I wanna combine them. Hard sell! I think a happy medium is following the character. William Faulkner and Ray Bradbury did that, and they were fairly successful.