PERCEPTIONS | In Which I Start Off Well and End Up Ranting

By Lisa Alber

perceptionI’m about to head off to my high school reunion, which will be fun plus a little nerve-wracking. I’m one of the ringleaders, which means I’ve been contacting classmates to spread the word. One man in particular shall remain nameless, but he was a nice kid back in the day (the class heartthrob), and he’s a nice man now. We were clowning around back and forth on Facebook chat when he wrote, “You’re too funny. You haven’t changed a bit.”

I often wonder what people mean when they say this. I’m no comedian, so we’re not talking funny ha-ha. Or, maybe we are. For all I know, my classmate thinks I’m funny ha-ha. In the end, statements like this get me thinking about perceptions. Self-perception versus others’ perceptions of us.

I think about this in terms of my characters too. In particular, those of us who write in multiple third person point of view (POV) need to think about this on behalf of our characters. Why? Just my humble opinion here, but there’s nothing more boring than a character whose self-perception is exactly how other characters perceive her.

Not to mention, it gets even more interesting when various characters’ perceptions conflict with each other. This is a nice way to create tension. And suspense too. Bear me out, I’m thinking this through as I write (which is how I write my novels – total pantster here). It strikes me that when we don’t spoon-feed our characters to our readers–that is, when we let the characters reveal themselves—and we don’t provide a unanimous opinion through the various POVs, we leave question marks in the readers’ minds. Question marks add suspense. Not to mention, it’s kind of nice when novelists let us make up our minds about the characters.

I wonder if this perception thing is part of why I like ensemble casts. My novel KILMOON is a prime example. According to various characters, protagonist Merrit is an inconsequential waif, rather uncanny, suspicious, annoying as hell, kind, charmed, and “a little too unblinking for his taste.” How the other characters perceive her is more about them, than her. Great way of showing them rather than telling.

And how does Merrit see herself? On the most basic ache-filled level, she sees herself as weak. There’s a reason for this vision she has of herself, and it relates to her story arc, as it should.

One of the things I find most interesting about character is what readers bring to the equation. I’m just discovering this as I navigate the world of the freshly debuted author. Readers read all kinds of things into Merrit, things I didn’t intend. For example, some readers find her unlikeable. I didn’t write her to be unlikeable, of course, but I did intend her to be flawed—morally ambiguous even. But likeable too.

I mean come on, I’m a likeable person with a sense of integrity—most of the time—which is exactly what I mean by moral ambiguity. Sometimes I am just out for myself, and sometimes I don’t do the perfectly right thing. And I’m probably bound for hell if you’re of a certain religious persuasion. All I’m saying is that a character can be likeable and flawed at the same time—just like we are.

To be honest, I struggled with Merrit. I was aware that she was difficult based on feedback I’d received. But, my god, people, how Pollyanna do you need your protagonists to be? Right there in the second chapter we see that she’s befriended the village drunk and is knitting an afghan for him. Apparently, that’s not good enough for some folks. I once entered a money-grubbing writing contest in which you’re supposed to be thrilled when you receive feedback about why you lost. I was told that Merrit should do something really nice like save the drunk from a pickpocket.

Hmm … Did the reader read my pages? Was I somehow too subtle about Merrit’s friendship with the drunk? I’d like to think I don’t need to hit readers over the head for them to see the nice sides of my characters. I’d also like to think that I can show kindness through something other than action sequences. “Hey, you, pickpocket, stop right there!”

Puh-leeeze.

OK, now I’m just ranting, so I’ll stop.

I can’t control what people bring to the table when it comes to me, so I’d best just enjoy my high school reunion. Ditto that for readers with my protagonists, so I’d best just enjoy creating my flawed characters with their various perceptions.

7 thoughts on “PERCEPTIONS | In Which I Start Off Well and End Up Ranting

  1. Great article, Lisa. I can relate. Some of my readers seem to have a problem with the fact that in Death is a Star, my protagonist and her sister commit a murder in the first scene. Readers can be so judgmental!

  2. The guy who said you’re funny is a shmuck.
    Great article. You’re right, we can’t control how readers interpret our works. Which I don’t see as a problem. How many times has Shakespeare been re-interpreted? We always project onto what we read to some extent. Things have gotten so competitive, now, there’s a lot of doing too much — to make sure the writer doesn’t confuse or god forbid challenge the reader. So we wind up writing by committee, revising and revising with different editors. Which leaches the color out of a story, flattens the voice. At some point I need to stick to my guns.

    • It’s so true, Stephen. Traditional publishing is all about (or mostly about) slinging their book nets out to the widest audience possible–which means more homogeneity.

      • Yep. We all wind up writing the same book. We can’t let that happen. It would be the death of the art form. And people need stories.

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