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.

 

“Who” Versus “How” a Character Is

Let’s mince some words with a couple of arbitrary definitions for the sake of having a discussion.

Flat characters, to me, are ones that are built as a list of bullet points, and you can see right though them.  The character is X, Y, and Z, and so they do things that are obviously connected to those things.

It’s a great starting place, but we can get ourselves into all kinds of trouble.  Another way you could look at “flat” is “stereotyped”.  They’re not exactly the same, but within the category of person that this character is—the category of XYZ—if they act squarely in the center of what you’d expect, then they’re not interesting.

Sometimes the mere exploration of XYZ is enough of a literary task to make the character truly interesting, but don’t rely on this justification.  Are you absolutely convinced your XYZ is so unique that it demands a book be written about it?  If so, fantastic.  If you’re kind of waffling as you decide, then the answer might just be no.

So start asking yourself How your character is.  This requires you to understand their internal struggles, not just because of XYZ, but because they are a rational-emotional being.  What things do they say or do that might at first contradict this XYZ formula?  We all have them.  We justify things to ourselves, we synthesize explanations for our behavior to others when they call us on contradicting our core beliefs.  Some things get us mad while the person next to us goes unfazed.  Some things bring some of us to tears, and others not.

These things are in motion at all times.  I’m a black box and you can’t always know how I’ll be just because I am XYZ.

Allow yourself to create diverse characters.  Try making two characters that are both XYZ, and yet are fundamentally different people in the way they think or act.

Planning a Character Arc

When speaking of fantasy and science fiction,  I feel that I would be doing a disservice to approach a story without some notion of a character arc.  Some authors don’t try at all to build one in advance—they let the character arc come out as part of the theme of the finished product.  To me, planning one adds a dimension to the overall progress of the story while I’m still in the early stages of conceptualizing the book.

Choosing who needs an arc

Let’s quickly clarify that of course not every single character and side character deserves an arc.  Some characters might have long ago experienced their arc and they’re not going to have a new one just because the camera is turned on and following the heroes with them in the background.

Side characters only get them from me when I find believable ways to alter their relationship with the main characters or the plot.  A side character might only have a single line in the book that proves that they experienced an arc that I wrote into them, and it might not have been planned for them from the beginning.

The first-come first-serve of arcs are the main characters.  These people are why the story exists in the form it does, and I want the reader to spend time with them and their motivations, and then watch how they change.

Character development in baby steps

Before there is anything said about sweeping character transformations, remember that not everything needs to be turned up to 11.  If you break the illusion of plausibility in the reader’s eyes, then the jig is up.

Small changes have the potential to be very powerful.  Characters that have behaved a certain way for decades might see or learn something profound, and yet the only change we see from our place holding the book might be that they say “thank you” a little more than usual.

Alternatively, this character might have a desire to change something about themselves.  By the end they might have finally found a reason to take a real step towards trying.

Emotional transformation

This is other end of the spectrum, and it’s often where I go first for ideas.  As the story develops around the character, I periodically go back and see how my plan for them is going to pan out.  Sometimes the answer is that it won’t, and the arc should be toned down or changed altogether.

I select an adjective to describe the character in their beginning state.  I will often take a few minutes to wordsmith just the right term because I am about to imbue this character with a nuance that I will have to work to capture.  I’m adding a dimension to them beyond their identity, and I want it to feel right.

Even though I have no idea where my story might be going yet, I try to pick a destination state and assign that an adjective too.

This pair of single words is concise, easy to remember, and hopefully evokes the same mental imagery every time I look at them.

The words don’t have to be opposites!  Why should they be?  Maybe there’s a leap which begs the question of how the person might be pushed into that change—in fact these kinds of changes can be quite interesting due to the reader’s difficulty to foresee the arc long in advance.

Some examples:

  • vengeful → protective
  • outsider → influential
  • beholden → accomplished
  • bridled → uncontrolled
  • follower → converted

These are often just statements about what the character should accomplish during their time in the spotlight, but because I don’t yet know what the story will have in store, it’s a brainstorming exercise.

The adjective you choose might turn out a little melodramatic once you see the story unfolding.  Try to envision where this character is headed, and pick a better adjective to describe some aspect of it.

Now you just have to figure out how to get your character from point A to point B.

Characters Learning Things Isn’t the Same As Character Development

When I’m wandering my way through a plot, I’ve written a few characters for whom the arc is just them learning a series of secrets that eventually leads them to foil the baddies.  It’s pretty much just a plot-driven conflict disguised as a mystery, and it’s not doing either one of those things very well.

Motivation

The best insight I’ve had into solving this problem came when I looked at the villains first.  What I had was Bad Guy trying to get away with something delicately couched as a secret plan.  If it wasn’t a secret, the heroes and the entire world itself would have no trouble eyeballing that plan and raising a stink about it.

My villains were weaksauce.  What they were doing relied entirely on the rest of the human race just not noticing the heist.  Sometimes the vehicle for this was that my villain was actually pretty influential, but was tackling this one alone for the glory.  Other times it was the opposite—Bad Guy is essentially just a nobody with a secret to turn the world on its head.

Consider a different look at the problem of the villainous trail.  When my hero, we shall call her Good Gal, is finding clues laying around, it calls into question what kind of operation Bad Guy is running here.  If Good Gal finds this garbage, why not someone else?  The answer might help you weave the details in your own trail mystery in a believable way, but you can’t get very far by ignoring the question.  Like if this is Bad Guy’s master plan and life’s work, what in the world would possess him to be this careless about the trail?

The issue as it relates to Good Gal is that the plot for this story can be summarized by “someone gets information that Bad Guy wishes they hadn’t”.  Not super compelling, and worse, Good Gal could literally be anyone.  She could be the least engaging character in the Milky Way and a the story would be fundamentally unchanged.

Stakes

It was now time to look back at Good Gal.  I was addressing some of the believability issues I had about this villain of mine, but Good Gal was still lacking.  In a disgusting case of her being possessed by the plot itself, she was doing whatever had to be done to make sure Bad Guy got caught.  She was moving from one thing to the next, the clues themselves nominally markers for progress, but without any development on her end.  She perhaps had a moment of change when she encountered the first clue and the story begins, but after that, she was not forced to cross thresholds that committed her to seeing it through.

The most meaningful thing you can make a character suffer as plot progression markers fly by is to come up with reasons why the Good Gal can’t just turn back.  “I’m so close to solving this that I can’t turn back!” is a pretty unconvincing motivation all by itself.

Markers of progress need to cost something, either personally or against the greater debt implied by failure.  This doesn’t have to be earth shattering, just something that stops the character from going back to the way it was before.  Learning something isn’t often a strong enough call to action to do that.  Most of us could learn something awful about the world and retire to an island mansion and never think about the rest of the messed up world ever again.

It could be that all we need is Good Girl in Act II messing up a friendship with someone that she respects.  She could miss her rent in the chaos of the chase, and now she’s got nowhere to crash when she really needs it.  Someone could die, in an extreme case.  Perhaps inaction is to blame, and she loses the one chance she was counting on to have some closure with her past.  Literally anything is going to be better than nothing.

No personal stakes means the story isn’t drawing you forward with each event, and if I’m missing that component, then my engagement with the character is going to grow thin.

Learning things doesn’t automatically make Good Girl a deeper character, but if such a thing transforms her outlook or alters the motivation she has, I’ll have done a much better job writing her character.