Would your character really do something like that? Or, when not to listen to people in your writing circle.

 

Ever since I’ve started writing fiction and creative nonfiction, I’ve sought out feedback and critiques from readers and other writers alike. At the beginning, I used to take every comment to heart – almost no matter what it was – and at least try to incorporate the feedback into the next draft.

I don’t do that anymore, for obvious reasons. A lot of feedback is little more than noise. Some of it can be downright harmful. Experience is the only way to hone your instincts for separating good criticism from useless.

In the critique groups I’ve participated in, a common note relates to the implausibility (to the critic, anyway) of a character’s actions at a key point in the story.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” a well-meaning critic might say about something your protagonist did. “Why would he do that?”

Be careful here. This can be valuable feedback. But it can also weaken your character and undercut your work. Which way it goes depends on what the speaker is actually trying to say.

If she means that your character’s actions seem inconsistent with what you’ve established as the character’s personality, motivations, abilities and obstacles, then pay attention. That means you’re allowing the needs of the plot to dictate what your characters do, instead of having your characters’ actions drive the plot. You’re making them reactive instead of proactive, and in the process, forcing them to behave less like humans and more like puppets. Or robots. Whichever you think is worse.

If, on the other hand, what she really means is something like “well, I would never do that (or would have made a different choice) myself, so I can’t believe that your character would either,” you can probably safely ignore her.

Your characters don’t have to be rational. They don’t have to be prudent. They don’t even have to be smart. They do have to be interesting, and they do have to be consistent. If your character’s behavior is consistent with the personality you’ve established for them, and with the conflict that is at the center of your story, then you’re good.

This is the first in what may or may not be an irregular series on the writing craft and what little I know of it. I hope you find at least some of it useful.

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