Monday, November 2, 2009

You Don't Always Need Your Eyes

I've been experiencing a strange thing with my latest revision of Rooster. But, to really explain it, I need to step back a bit.

I started this novel because I wanted to understand a man that was very important in my life. This man had always confused me as I was growing up. I didn't understand why he was so angry and reclusive. I didn't get why he had such a tough shell. So, I wrote about him, starting with the facts, and generously filling in the cracks with details that I made up. I liked the story because it allowed me to explain this man whom I had never been able to explain before.

But, while the protagonist of my book, Bao Phamduong, was sympathetic, he was far from being likable. Just because people understood WHY he was the way he was didn't make readers want to invite him over for brunch. I heard many readers tell me this, but I didn't change Bao. I figured he was who he was, and I was content with the idea that he at least evoked sympathy. And, readers seemed to be impressed by the book, even if they weren't necessarily excited about it.

Then, a couple weeks ago, I decided to make Bao less of a grump. It was an experiment to see what would happen to my book. I started revising, taking away many of the places where Bao was being a jerk. That was when the strange thing happened. In the process of making Bao nicer, I noticed that I was physically feeling much less tense. Particular in my shoulders, I was noticing myself relaxing. I felt like I was in my yoga class even though I was actually in front of my computer.

Was this what my readers were experiencing? Is this why they could say that the book was well-written even if they didn't enjoy reading it? I really don't know. I'm letting this play out. I'm going through the entire book, making Bao more likable. I'm not sure if the book will still work for me when all is said and done. After all, my original source of inspiration, the man I set out to explain will be mostly gone from this latest draft. But, I feel like it's important for me to try and understand this new connection I have with my story.

What do you all think? Should one trust these physical reactions as much as anything emotional or intellectual? Have you had this sort of experience yourself? it worth going through the revision if I lose the character I had originally wanted to write about?


  1. Yes, I have always found when revising a less than likable character I seem less tense. Writing darkness, in any aspect,(journals, characters, scenes) has always left me feeling less than...

    And when revising, which I have recently done, it doesn't allow you to lose the character, it brings a whole other dimension to your work. It might not be what you originally intended, but it will be better.

    But this is only my humble opinion.

  2. Thank you very much, Piedmont Writer. I agree that I'm not sure I will lose my character--but it is something I'm scared of. So far, Bao's emotional range just seems broader. The angry scenes that I've kept in feel more dramatic because I'm contrasting it with other moods.

  3. There is always that threshold where the character is no longer sympathetic. He is unlikable and it can do exactly what happened to you. Readers respond to the craft, but they don't respond to the character. Making a character have highs and lows can have a much better emotional impact than straight negativity all the time.

    --This is something that I have been struggling with in one of my own stories.--

    Furthermore, you said that people aren't experiencing a dynamic character. Bao is the same in the beginning as he is in the end. Most people will say that's a problem, but what if the character doesn't change at all, but the reader's perceptions do? Having an emotionally and philosophically static main character could still make an interesting story if, by the end, we are convinced that the MC had the correct worldview. Idk, just something that I thought of while reading your post.

    I enjoyed it!


  4. Maybe your revisions will work... maybe they won't. But it never hurts to give it a shot. Right? Good luck!

  5. Our physical body is tied to our emotional state. In many cases it's a physiological response. When you smile, your brain releases endorphins and your mood lifts, as one example.

    I've read many books and changed my reading posture based on what was happening on the pages. Sit up for an exciting section, relax and recline for a funny or languid section, grip the edges of the book tighter when it's scary or suspenseful...all of these reactions impact my perception of a book.

    I haven't paid attention to this while I am writing, but I probably will now. You should do a follow up post in a week for those of us you inspired today!

    I don't think you should be afraid to move forward with a change from your original vision of the character as long as the change makes the book better. I'm making some significant changes to the plot of FATE'S GUARDIAN, mainly my antagonist and his motivations, and while I liked what I had before, I think this makes him more accessible and plays up and angle of tragedy for his demise rather than having him wholly despicable.

  6. I think you should have stuck with your initial thoughts on the character. Writing a character that isn't as appealing to everyone (because of character traits or whatever) might be more difficult, but sometimes that's just what is needed. I can imagine that crafting a darker or grumpier character might have an effect on you as the writer, but that tells me then that you're getting it right. Rather than changing the character, I'd say keep going with him. There have been characters in books that I didn't like, felt sorry for, or even downright hated (cough...MC in Twilight...cough), but maybe that was the author's intention (that I not really like the character). I'm always a fan of "going with your gut" though, since that's usually how I write anyway. Great post.

  7. I'd keep going with the revision. That real person you wanted to understand was the inspiration behind your story. You can still understand him even if you make the character more likeable. (I did this with one of my novels and it opened doors that I didn't know existed).

    You might even end up understanding him more as you explore ways he could have acted.

    I think it was Richard Peck who said something like this: A story is not what happened but what might have happened.

  8. Ken, I think that my character is sympathetic, but not likable. For me, there's a difference there. He also changes by the end of the book. The problem, though is that I think the change comes to late. We're with this grumpy guy for too long, even if we can sympathize with him. Most of my changes are probably going to happen in the middle of the book.

    Erin, I'd argue that it does hurt a bit because of the time it takes. I often wonder if I'd be better off just working on a new book and calling this one practice. Hmm...

    Rick, thanks for your thoughts. I think I'm experience the exact same thing you describe with Fate's Guardian. My protag's life seems more tragic if there is a bit of heart in him. I never noticed my posture changing as I was reading, that's really interesting, and I'm sure it happens to me too.

  9. I read a draft of Rooster that is probably now several revisions from your current version. I was a very bad reviewer and never gave you any constructive feedback. As a 'reader' and not a 'writer', I didn't feel like I could comment beyond "It was really good!". After reading this blog, I'm getting a better idea of how I can be a more thoughtful reviewer and reader. So, even though I know this blog is designed for writers, I'm really appreciating the opportunity to see into the writing process, and I think it's really affecting how I read, which I love.

    I do agree that Bao was not a particularly likable character, and it sometimes made me a little uncomfortable, but that also made him very real to me, because real people aren't always one thing or another. I was left wondering if I was supposed to like him or not. Being a less critical reader than I probably should be, I do sometimes worry about what I'm 'supposed' to feel about a book or character.

    Also in an unrelated note, in version many-versions-ago, I truly loved many of your descriptions and phrasing - so much so that I wrote down some of the lines in my quotes notebook.

    I'm sorry I wasn't a better reviewer. I felt very honored to be able to read your book. I'm hoping with some of the insight I've gained here, I can be a better reader in the future.

  10. Davin, I know how difficult a decision and journey this has been for you, and I've seen you a little happier lately as you let yourself explore what differences you can make in the story with Bao. I like the changes you've made - I think they make the character a bit more stronger because he's a little bit happier in his circumstance than he was before (that makes him stronger to me - if you show his struggles with it). Remember, he can't just be happy for nothing. If you're making him less angry, and there was a reason for him to be angry in the first place, give us hints here and there WHY he has reasons to be less angry, maybe? That might make his character even more appealing and believable.

    I like Eric's urging you to keep going with Bao as you have him, but at the same time, this might just be a gut thing to change him, too. And honestly, I don't think you're drastically changing him on the page. I think, mostly, that YOU are changing your feelings for him, and that will show up in your revisions. From what I read, he's still Bao, and he's still got plenty of reasons for us not to like him. But I think the little bit of likability you're giving him makes him more intriguing and fun to read.

  11. It seems to me, that the original concept of Rooster was more a cathartic process for you, the person who is trying to understand the character. The revision process, is more about you the writer who needs to engage his readers.

    Then, there might also be the idea that your revisions aren't totally revisions, but a better understanding of the man behind the character.

    I mean, Scrooge was a totally unlikable character in the beginning, but over time, as the readers learned about his past, and as he learned about the things that shaped his life, he became a more likable character.

    Sorry, not meaning to go all philosophical/psychological on you with this comment. I think if the essence of Bao remains, even with a bit more likability added, then you're doing what every writer does during the revision process - honing your novel, making it a bit better. I think if you lose the essence of Bao totally . . . well, then you've created a totally new character.

    I think you need to maintain a balance between the original Bao and the changed Bao that doesn't lose the essence of Bao.

    These are just random thoughts, and I'm not an expert in any way, shape, or form.


  12. Davin, I think starting with a real person is great, and evolving to a fictional version is better. My MC's and many other characters start out as versions of real people, but by the end of the story, they've made different choices, become different people, and much more interesting ones at that.

    As long as there is emotion, making Bao different is ok. Someone at the James River Writer's Conference said, "When you re-read your work, if you don't feel some emotion, it isn't right." So I'd be sure the absence of tension you're feeling isn't an absence of emotion.

  13. I know something of what you are describing. I have found, in my own personal writing journey, that writing an unlikable character is draining. It makes me more tense, probably because I am not quite as unlikeable as the character. =P While it might not be a larger effort than say, writing a hero, it still is more taxing, simply because of the constant meanness.

    I don't know if that was what the readers were experiencing or not, for in my opinion, I love reading less than likable characters. But your relaxing during the revisions does make sense.

  14. "Is this why they could say that the book was well-written even if they didn't enjoy reading it?"

    Um, I'm going to say no. I do think it's a good idea to give Bao a broader emotional spectrum, as it would better support the ending you have. But I think, you know, that the real problem is a structural one with the final section revolving around Daeng's funeral. It occured to me when I was reading this post. I'll email you with my ideas instead of putting them here.

  15. Davin: I forgot to talk about your larger point, and yes, I think that the physical reactions we get while reading are important things to which we should pay attention! Our posture, as Rick says, is a good indicator of how involved we are with the story.

  16. Oh hell yeah, if my jaw aches from clenching, I know I'm in trouble and something--usually a plot hole somewhere-- needs fixing .

    I can't afford another crown.

  17. Like, Scott, I forgot to address your question. Sorry!

    Yes, my writing affects me physically. I'm constantly tense if I'm writing a tense seen. I sometimes have to go for a walk or pace the room. And darker characters always get me on edge - reading and writing them.

  18. Maybe darker characters call for darker chocolate. :)

  19. I notice this effect with scenes more than individual characters. I think I mentioned my internal "home run" response in one of my comments here before, but that's basically what I'm looking for.

    It's the realization that I'm feeling the emotions my characters are feeling from the words on the page. I crave that sensation (even the dark ones) because I know that my writing is working then.

    As to your original question yes, definitely trust those gut reactions you get to the story. I also think that having a sympathetic, but not likable, character can be more powerful than one that is both.

  20. Firstly, thank goodness those (shudder) Halloween profile pics are back to normal. I got a bit of a fright when I popped in to check the Lab out over the weekend!!

    Davin, I think the physical effects of what you're experiencing as you change Bao into less of a grump is a manifestation of a profound change within your being. As you work through your confusion about this man - perhaps even learn to forgive him - you're letting go of the emotional burdens of the past (the feeling of lightness in your shoulders: the emotional cause of shoulder problems is a feeling of being burdened). This is a wonderful healing process, but not one that comes easy, so you must have been doing a lot of hard inner work.

    So to finally answer your question: Yes! I do think you should trust this physical process, because it is a reflection of a far deeper emotional/spiritual process you have been undergoing. Continue with your revisions. You might surprise yourself with what you find out about Bao and his original model. And how you feel about them now. :)

  21. I like that the emotional range of your character has expanded. I think that most people have wide ranges in their emotions and reactions to different things.

    Certain characters may seem one dimensional from one angle or viewpoint, but when seen from other viewpoints they can change completely. Have you thought about having a character that respects Bao for some reason narrate some of the things he sees Bao do?

    I just recently watched Sybil with Sally Field. I read the book ages ago, but it struck me in watching the movie that Sybil's mother (one of the worst mothers I've ever heard about) was seen as a wonderful person by her neighbors. She was active in her community and an amazing pianist. Even her husband had no idea how bad she was. How about if the story were told from his pov? There was one point where I felt sorry for the mother. It turns out she was schizophrenic. She was dealing with her own demons. It doesn't make what she did alright, but it does help it make sense.

    Just a thought.

  22. I also didn't really address the physical aspect question. When I'm writing the tense scenes - my shoulders tense, my brow furrows, and I've been known to clench my teeth.

    Did you ever read Intensity by Dean Koontz?? I was tense - in a good way - throughout virtually the entire book. As the MC was holding her breath, I found myself holding my breath. The whole reading experience was very physical. The book was so intense (sorry), that by the end of each page I was both afraid to turn the page because of what might happen next, and excited to turn the page because of what might happen next. I was emotionally and physically exhausted after finishing that book.

    So, in many ways, I think we want our readers to tense, to laugh, to go on the emotional rollercoaster with our characters.


    p.s. I'm with Lady Glamis on needing dark chocolate to write dark characters.

  23. That's a challenge. I think it's easier to write characters we can be sympathetic to than characters who are likable. It's easier to justify their actions because of something that happened in the past than to make readers long to see them triumph over that past.

    In my new WIP, my main character shouldn't be likable. I've found it simple to evoke sympathy for her because of how she grew up, because of betrayal and abandonment issues in her life. But she irritates easily. She's judgmental. She lies--a lot. Yet I find myself liking her because she's trying to change. Because a new endeavor pops up here and there, a goal to be better or somehow stray from the messes she keeps getting herself into. To strive to reach a place where can be respected. To shed her old self.

    Your character sounds complex, I'm curious how these changes will turn out. Losing the depth of the character is a possibility but gaining the reader's enthusiasm to see your MC through to the end could be the byproduct. And that would be great. I truly believe the ability to make readers root for your characters is a great tool to have at your disposal.

  24. Eric, Thanks a lot for your thoughts! It's good for me to see some differences in opinion. I made sure to keep my last draft, the grumpy Bao draft, in case I should hate what I'm currently doing. So, I will always have that to fall back on.

    Paul: "You might even end up understanding him more as you explore ways he could have acted. " That's a very interesting point. Thank you!

    Tracy, wow, thanks for jumping in! I had no idea that you had finished the draft. First off, thank you so much! If I had it to do over again, I probably would have mailed you a print version, bound, which would have made the read more enjoyable. But, I really do appreciate you comments. The "realness" of Bao that you mention is something several people have mentioned to me. That plays very heavily in my consideration, so I appreciate it!

    Michelle, you know about this situation better than anyone because you're the only person to have experienced the two drafts. So, thanks for offering your thoughts. I think you're right that Bao is not changing THAT dramatically, but maybe the change is happening in my own personal opinion of him. I may have to sit with this revision for awhile before I can really see it clearly.

    Scott: "It seems to me, that the original concept of Rooster was more a cathartic process for you, the person who is trying to understand the character. The revision process, is more about you the writer who needs to engage his readers." You are dead on about this. The process was very cathartic, and it has helped me to fix the relationship I have with the man who inspired it. The rest of it really is about the book and what I'm willing to live with.

    Michelle, that's really great advice. Thank you. And, I think that's one of my fears too. I wonder if I am losing some emotion. I know that so far some scenes feel more dramatic as a result of toning other scenes down. But, that means that other scenes are less dramatic.

    Eliza, You could be absolutely right. Yes, I don't really know what the readers are feeling and all I can do is guess. Readers have tried to communicate their responses with me, but I've always wondered if there was something that couldn't be put into words.

    Scott, thanks for your comments. I have actually revised the last part considerable thanks to your comments. So, I think at least some of these structural elements have been fixed. I'll write you back. :)

    Rebecca, Hopefully I can get my problem fixed before I publish so that if you decide to read you won't have to go to the dentist. :)

    Matthew, thanks for your thoughts. As a reader, I think I can also put up with a sympathetic but unlikable character. This probably goes back to the post I just did on being depressive. Maybe this is also partly a matter of finding the right readers.

    Ann, thanks for this! The process of writing this book has involved a ton of inner investigation, and it has already helped me in dealing with this man. In that sense, I felt like I had already gotten the rewards of writing the book, but maybe there is more to come. Maybe I need to really see it from the other side. So profound!

    Lois, really good points. Looking at Bao from other points of view is definitely happening, and in the book there are at least three moments when his beauty comes through. One of those is my favorite part of the book because I stumbled upon it unconsciously as I was writing. That was very powerful for me. And, in this revision I've been doing more of that as well. This indeed helps!

    Scott, I haven't read Intensity, or anything by Koontz, actually. Thanks for the recommendation. You've gotten me fascinated.

    Cindy, really well said. The situation you are describing for yourself is much like what I am writing. And, in this revision I'm doing as you say and making Bao's desire to change more apparent in the middle of the book. I think it was always there, but it came too late and was too subtle. Great points!

  25. Davin, this is a great way to understand the man in your life much better. I appluad you for doing this.

    I think you intended for this character to be less likable than he's turning out. And I don't think that you will loose him just because of that. I think he will show you some things by the time you're finished revising. Some things you never even thought of. :)

  26. Davin, for my first novel my MC was often described as unlikeable. That was a blow to me because I didnt think of her that way. I think however, that a character can be unlikeable but probably can connect with the reader if he has redeemable characters. For me the best bad guys are 'the ones you love to hate.' Im sure we can look at that statement in the reverse and as writers always come up with characters that are unlikeable but complex.

  27. My character Amy is a very depressing person. She's suffered too much abuse in her life - especially in childhood. She is loosely based on a specific type of woman. The book was dark and brooding, and I got a lot of the same reaction as you did Davin. Good writing, realistic character, but too depressing to read for long.

    I started adding some good experiences to her life, average things that made her laugh or love. Reasons why others would love her even when she didn't love herself. I found this rounded out her character - made her more true to life. Because, nobody wallows in misery all the time. Thats not realistic.

    There is still a lot of tragedy in this character's life, but it is tempered. I haven't lost my original character. Maybe when you finish revising, you'll re-read it, and find you can return some of those grumpy moments that made your character so intriguing to write about in the first place and add a sympathetic twist to it.

    And maybe what is happening to you in your revising this character is a way for you to see this person in a different light. Surely he must have some redeeming qualities for him to have been so important to you.

    Ask people who know him. Search your memory; did this person ever do anything that amazed or impressed you?

    I'd say go with the new ideas for revision, let them play out, and when you're all finished, read your premise again and see if you've kept the integrity of this character while adding some depth to him.

    All you're saying here is that you're still developing your character - Bao. Good luck with your revisions, however they work out.


  28. My favorite quote:

    If you do what you always did you always get what you always got.

    I spent eleven years chasing my tale. (I'm ashamed to say and when I'm done here I'm going to stick my head in the sand.)

    My second book took a year and my third book will be wrapped up this month (roughly eight months).

    If the questions is whether to change your character, the answer is yes. The definition of insanity is repeating the same thing and expecting different results.

    If the question is whether to move onto another book or keep working on this one, the answer is move on.

    If the changes you've made now are the right changes, they'll still be right ones to finish in a year. If they're the wrong changes you'll know it too.

    And you'll have another book. And a new arsenal of experience. (Editing gun cocked and loaded: bang, bang, bang.)

    distance = PERSPECTIVE

  29. Just had time to read the post and then skim the comments, but one of the things you said in the comments really struck me. If you're giving your character more of an emotional range, that sounds like a positive revision. If you're making your character into a different person ... well, that could change the entire novel. The first approach is a way of enriching the story you've already told. If you still feel like this after you've gone through and made a round of revisions, then you've probably improved your novel rather than lost your character.

  30. Well, I guess in the event you hate the revisions, you always have previous drafts to fall back on, yah? ;)

    Yes, I find myself affected physically by what I'm writing. (Usually the insane frustration and tension is when something is badly broke and I don't know how to fix it or press on regardless.)

    I take it as a good sign if I'm emotionally reacting to what's going on in the story, chances are eventually I'll be able to convey that through the words so other readers may share it. I hope so, anyway.

    (I'm aware I write some fairly dark MCs and stories and that it's likely not many people will like them. That's the challenge for me--figuring out how to write it true to character in a way that will, hopefully, engage reader interest and empathy as the story progresses. Maybe I'm just optimistic since as a reader I gravitate towards liking the unpleasant, bad, not-so-good, etc characters. ;))

    In answer to your last question, I'd echo some of the other points. The previous draft might have been about figuring out Bao, and once you did, from a writer's perspective, you're seeing if you can make him more of a character people will care about, rather than just want to figure out?


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