Unpacking the Defensive Reaction to Feedback

I wanted to explore some thoughts on the kinds of feedback traps fallen into by me or others I critique for.  Throughout my attendance of multiple writing groups these last few years, both casual and “serious” (read: looking to get published sooner than later), many times there are reactions to critiquer feedback that produce the following sorts of defensive responses from the author:

  • Oh, you’ll find that out later
  • Well, see, the backstory is…
  • No, I’ve actually seen this really happen before (or, Actually, I based this character on someone I know)
  • But that’s the mystery!
  • That’s just how the character/story/villain/culture is!

Barring abuse on the part of the critiquer, and if the critique is coming from someone who really is in your target audience, a defensive response selected from a list like this is missing the purpose of the feedback: My words were read, processed, and then the reader was confused or unsatisfied.  I can choose to ignore an unwanted reader reaction, but I need to be careful if I’m the only person I’ve ever found who reacts positively instead of negatively.

Many of these responses show us that the reader isn’t happy with the product, and while we write for ourselves and our target audience, we do sell fiction that we expect others to enjoy as well.  What they don’t enjoy, for example, is buying a 1000-piece puzzle only to open up the box to find all the pieces already glued in their proper places, nor do they enjoy opening it up to find a picture in the puzzle wholly unlike the what was suggested by the box’s outer art, nor a puzzle whose picture is incomprehensible even when completed.

Taking the puzzle analogy about as far I know how, I can’t simply appease my reader concerning the inclusion a plot point just by pointing out that it actually exists way off over in unrelated corner of the puzzle.  When the puzzle I designed for them implied that the pieces would be closer to each other than that, I likely have a potential problem.

It’s the way the puzzle pieces of fiction fit together that can make or break the reader experience, not just the presence of individually cool pieces.

Oh, you’ll find that out later

Think long and hard if you’re saying this.  This could be fine, but just because someone will find something out later if they stick with it doesn’t mean that the scene which raised the concern is off scot free.  The reader should not be genuinely worried or unsatisfied about a point like this, because either I did my job and imbued the scene with the appropriate questions from characters, or I didn’t do my job and the characters went through a scene without them or the narrative acknowledging at all that the concerning piece of information is coming later.


If my reader goes through my book and reads a scene about a private eye sitting down with a presumable suspect but only reciprocates meaningless talk of baseball, then leaves without much introspection, we get zero sense that the private eye was doing their job, or was concerned the same way the reader was about how the conversation stuck to baseball, or anything else.

If I write the private eye as feeling frustrated, that gives the reader permission to be frustrated as well.  The frustration becomes an asset, and the reader no longer asks “Well, why on earth did that guy just ramble about baseball?  Why didn’t the private eye just nudge the conversation back to where it ought to be?  Do they even care about solving this mystery?  What was the point.  This person seems lazy.  I don’t like them.  They’re not interesting.”

My reader shouldn’t have a reason to ask a plot-breaking question, even if I really did plant an answer later in the book.  Period.  That does not mean that there can be no questions, only that I need the reader to be asking the right questions.

And of course, there is nobody more in control of the text than me, the author.

I need to transmute bad reader questions into curious observations that build their investment in the story.  For example, the question “Why didn’t the private eye just nudge the conversation?” means that the scene needs to be adjusted so that the reader instead might say to themself, “Huh, when the private eye tried to put the conversation back on track, this suspect let himself get deliberately distracted by anything at all.”

It can yield mostly the same result—our private eye leave the office not having received the information they wanted, yet this time we feel like our response is mirrored in the characters.  The piece of info the reader finds out later should be why this happened, not why the private eye let it happen.  The execution is crucial—I don’t get to claim the benefits of the best possible reaction when I wrote something that provokes only frustrated questions.

Well, see, the backstory is…

If I have to tell you contextual details that make the text work, then either those expository details need to be in the text so I don’t have to have this talk with my readers, or, more effectively, the scene needs to not rely on prior exposition of that backstory for it to make sense.

A curious symptom of this actually presents itself with the parts of the scenario flipped around: because of a reveal later (Bonnie gets redemption in killing her gang boss), the narrative positions the character early so that the reveal can happen (Bonnie is on a warpath to slaughter gang bosses).

If a reader sees hypothetical Bonnie here on a warpath, they’re forced to ask “Well, why?  What was so bad that happened to her?”

If the story is based on that mystery, you might be fine, but the authorial answer must not be “Well, see, the backstory is…” or, relatedly, a bad deflection of “You’ll find out later.”

Bonnie needs to show us now the clues we need to understand the shape of what happened in the past that the story will actually pay off.  Merely seeing that she is ruthless isn’t engaging all by itself, because it’s the connected details that intrigue us: maybe the reader should sense an obvious pattern in the crimes of those she’s killing, or readers can tell by the way she talks to her victims what kind of trauma she suffered before the story began, or anything at all.

Unless the plot arc of the novel is a mystery to that very question, we need to be given the tools to understand our characters to the depth required by the plot, whether or not they are written as point-of-view characters.

No, I’ve actually seen this really happen before

My opinion is that this is entirely a motivational issue for a character or plot.  I often have no doubt that this true when someone says it, but if it’s the end-all-be-all defense of a scene or character, then this seems a deflection of an underlying challenge to the motivational problem observed by the reader.

The majority of readers can’t possible have empathy for a character basely purely on the fact that this or that aspect of the character is from the author’s real experience.  If the readers don’t understand this unbelievable character or why they’re doing any of what they do, and if even the other characters don’t bat an eye about it either, then the readers are almost forced to conclude that it is the author’s narrative that is out of touch with reality.

These sorts of characters and scenarios are often included for the “cool” factor in the author’s mind, but there’s often very little automatically intriguing about the character to the reader just by virtue of the fact that the character exists.  We see weird things all the time.  They’re a novel commodity at best.  My role while including such a component in my book should be to connect the reader to the reaction I want them to have to that component, which may indeed require one of my characters wrinkling up their nose at it, refusing to be in the same room, or similar hints that the reader is allowed to have that same reaction.  I should see something of why it fits the story, either thematically, as a foil to some other character, as foreshadowing—anything.

We shouldn’t mistake the role of fiction to simply reinforce what the majority believes, but this need not be in service of majorities; perhaps my character explicitly shouldn’t react to the oddball in my story, but in that case, the readers need the tools to understand who this character is and something of why they are the way they are.

But that’s the mystery!

If I catch myself defending my work with this, then I need to dig deeper into the reason for the unsynchronized understanding of the story that I’m having with my readers.  Is it that the reader cares way more about this other sub-plot?  Is there an sympathy/empathy problem with my characters?  Did the reader actually just miss key plot info from earlier, or misattribute it in an undesirable way?

If I fix those problems instead, then the only people I should expect to be upset with the core motivation for my story are those that don’t enjoy that core motivation as a storytelling device.  If they’re not my target audience, I may be in the clear, but I need to make sure that’s true before I dismiss anyone who doesn’t connect to my story’s core components.

That’s just how the character/story/villain/culture is!

This one is a lot like the above two—I’m stuck defending the existence of a thing merely because it is the way it is.

Sometimes this can indicate a problem, sometimes not.  However, if this is the only defense I have, then my character/plot/villain/culture may not be strongly enough integrated with the rest of the story.

My reader shouldn’t have a reason to genuinely ask me this question if my only response is “but I think it’s cool.”  Instead, my reader needs to witness that a serial face slapper of a character is consciously choosing, regardless of consequences, to slap faces, even if the logic is demented and not at all relatable.

When this is a problem, I like to believe that the problematic aspect is a self-awareness thing on the part of the character.  If my character slaps faces “because that’s just what they do,” then I haven’t properly provided any depth to this character.  The reader is inspecting what amounts to a cardboard cutout for a sign of life behind its eyes, and they’re not seeing any.  That’s a deeply unsatisfying experience as a reader and can unravel the whole book.

Proving to us that the character has conflict inside them, (for example, either in recognition that slapping a traffic officer is a dumb move or that they know they should stop but can’t) shows us that they’re not just a bad caricature of a gimmick existing purely for the book to use as a pawn.

Don’t mistake this for the reader needing to understand the backstory of the character—the book need not contain the entirety of the character’s life story up to this point, but I should consider ways to make it appear that this character has been alive and shaped by their experiences and reactions, changing over time, cementing them into who they are.  We can begin to understand a serial face slapper if we sense their present motivations, good or bad, whether or not they go through with a given slapping opportunity.


6 thoughts on “Unpacking the Defensive Reaction to Feedback

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