The amazingly sensitive reader sh*t detector

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Silk’s Post #46 — Not one of the 5 writers failed to get dinged for it in our June retreat. “It” is that often hard-to-define whiff of something in a character’s words or actions that made at least one of the critiquers call “foul!”

Often, it was something a character said that seemed … well, out of character. Or out of the story timeframe. Or a regionalism from the wrong region. Or something too young or too old for their age.

A super-modern teen uses an expression from the 1960s, for instance, but doesn’t mean it ironically or seem to coin it as a new, cool, retro term. A normally refined character says something too slangy or crude for the circumstances. A teen suddenly sounds like an adult, or a tween’s talk regresses to that of a third-grader. A minor character becomes an instant caricature by using hammy dialect or saying something hammily smarmy (try saying that fast three times).

Similar sour notes were called out when a character’s inner thought processes didn’t seem to match either the character, or the character’s expected appreciation of the circumstances. For instance, a character we thought of as smart and perceptive seems to have inexplicable difficulty figuring something out. A “dumbout”, you might call it. Sometimes, characters appeared to learn something from experience, then immediately forget it – like a rube falling for the same old parlour trick over and over.

In contrast to the times when previously sharp characters had trouble adding 2+2 and arriving at 4, other situations had characters zooming to conclusions on scanty or complex information like savants, leaving readers still scratching their heads.

Of course, the sh*t detectors clanged the loudest when a character acted in a way contrary to our expectations. A character we’ve come to know as fussy and feisty suddenly goes all laissez faire, for instance, becoming compliant when we’d expect them to kick and scream. Or a highly principled character with a reputation to uphold decides on a whim to break the rules in a particularly risky manner without thought of consequences (or ethics). Or a heroic character sits around moping and feeling sorry for himself.

Of course, we were doing critiques, not just reading for pleasure. Could it be that the 5 writers were just being especially sensitive to such inconsistencies? After all, even the characters in bestselling books occasionally fall “out of character”. We’ve all noticed it, haven’t we?

Yes. My point exactly.

It is amazing how skilled human beings are at “reading” people and developing expectations about them. And how fast they do so. I’m no psychologist, but I believe this is a deeply ingrained survival skill. We all learn to distinguish our friends from our enemies early in life – or suffer the consequences. What was it George Bush once tried (and failed) to say? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. We learn these lessons well, and sometimes painfully.

What’s even more amazing is the subtlety of the cues we learn to judge people by, and anticipate their actions from. Even micro-expressions, incredibly fleeting facial tics that one is unaware of perceiving, give us a “feeling” about someone’s mood. A slight modulation in tone of voice or a tiny hesitation before a word tell us whether we can trust what we hear. Not only that, once we have categorized a person (usually very quickly, whether we mean to or not, notwithstanding the old saw about not judging a book by its cover), we tend to “read” their words and actions as evidence supporting our first impression. When they deviate, we notice.

Why would it be any different when we’re assessing a character in a book? I believe readers very quickly judge the literary characters they are introduced to, and thereafter hold them to strict account for behaving as expected.

This amazingly sensitive reader sh*t detector works both to a writer’s advantage – and disadvantage. It either attracts readers to, or repels them from, a character very quickly. So lesson #1 is: be thoughtful, precise and crafty about how you introduce your characters. You can hook readers very quickly. However, they will not allow you to change your characters except through carefully-constructed character arcs. And they will notice (and will not like it) if you allow your characters to talk, or think, or act out-of-character.

Exceptions? Well, of course. Psychopaths or sociopaths, who are conscience-free and can hide their true (evil) selves, are certainly pathological exceptions. But these are, presumably, limited to villains in your story.

Another exception is the character in disguise – for instance the powerful king who hides his identity behind a commoner’s cloak, or a wizard whose magic is kept secret for tactical reasons so he can save the world later in the story. There was even an interesting real-life “case” in the news this week, triggered by a Facebook post about a supposed pastor named Jeremiah Steepek who disguised himself as a homeless person among the worshippers at his new parish to test their Christian charity (this viral tale has now been debunked, although it appears to have been derived from a real-life, if less dramatic, story). The examples of powerful kings, wizards and urban legends should suggest that characters in disguise are probably most at home in fantasy types of genres.

Writers are smart, though. We understand the sensitivity of character integrity intuitively, don’t we? So why do we sometimes make our characters say, think or do things that are out of character? Do we not know our characters well enough? Are we just being sloppy? Are we carried away by our imaginations? I don’t think so, at least not usually.

The ugly truth: we do it most often to serve the plot.

This is the terrible writer’s sin that is easily discovered by the reader’s sh*t detector. The reader doesn’t even have to try hard to find out our dirty little secret. It sticks out like an especially egregious typo.

But what about those bestsellers I mentioned, the ones where popular writers have a character act inconsistently – and their editors let them get away with it? Yes, I’m sure it does happen. But read the book again. Most times it’s a deliberate clue – a foreshadowing of something that comes later in the plot. Something that the most highly-skilled writers understand will be picked up by alert readers with finely-honed sh*t detectors and will set them to wondering …

Circus promotor P.T. Barnum is often misquoted as saying: “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the public,” but in fact he was not referring to their intelligence. The actual quote was: “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.” (He also said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” and “Opinions are like assholes; everyone’s got one,” which kind of tells you where he was coming from.)

When it comes to readers, however, I believe writers underestimate their intelligence and their sh*t detectors at their peril.

If your plot demands that your characters act out-of-character, change the plot. I will be doing quite a bit of that myself in rewrite.

6 thoughts on “The amazingly sensitive reader sh*t detector

  1. Thanks for another thoughtful post, Silk. Much of what you say rings true, like using a character to serve the plot. A mortal sin. I agree there must be a level of consistency in our characters’ thoughts, speech, anticipated actions, etc. But I must disagree with your overarching points, if I read them correctly. I disagree that readers will not allow you to change your characters. In fact, readers DO expect characters to change, to do unexpected things the reader had no way of anticipating. If they act ‘in character’ throughout the story, they would bore their reader. Characters MUST change during the course of the story. That’s the whole point of the hero’s journey. And yes, they must have weaknesses and stumble in spite of their cleverness. That’s what makes them interesting and human. That’s how we relate and connect as they mirror our own imperfections. I realize this is a complex issue and I may explore it further in a future post. You certainly know how to start a debate!

    • You’re so right Helga! I should have been clearer on the point about change, but I did note that readers “will not allow you to change your characters except through carefully-constructed character arcs”. Absolutely, characters have to change to be interesting … but they shouldn’t just conveniently step out of character temporarily to serve the needs of the author in a particular scene or to make a plot point work.

      A character having a weakness or making a mistake — or even being “naturally” inconsistent as we humans sometimes are — is, to me, totally within the bounds of what readers accept (and find interesting). In fact, inconsistency might be a “normal” trait for a particular character. In that case, the reader might come to expect that character to be confused, or maybe insincere and untrustworthy.

      And you’re also right that we don’t want to be able to anticipate everything a character will do. We want to see them react to challenges and find out what they’re made of. We want to discover whether they’ll rise or fall, succeed or fail. Yet, their path still has to make some kind of sense to us, be credible and satisfying.

      It’s a hard distinction to get across, but I think we know an illogical character “break” when we read it … those times when a character’s behaviour or words make us stop, say “HUH?”, and re-read because something just doesn’t seem to add up. It can really take us out of the story. Sometimes this is intentional on the author’s part to signal that we really don’t know the true character, and that there’s more to him than meets the eye. However, this can also be dangerous territory because you don’t want to spring new information that leaves the reader feeling stupid, or cheated.

      So many subtleties here! I’d love to hear more of your thoughts.

  2. Great post Silk. (And Helga’s comment). It reminds me of what Michael Hauge says about the character arc. He states that characters begin the story in their “Identity” and change over time until they realize their true “Essence”. Often we will see glimpses of their true Essence early on in the story, even if, or especially if they are in contrast with, or in conflict with their Identity, or who they believe they are or have to be to survive at the outset.

    • What a great way to put it … I love the concept of the character’s essence. This goes beyond identity. As Stephen Colbert would put it, there’s a lot of truthiness there!

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