Friday, April 10, 2009

When the character doesn't fit.

Have you ever read a book and had to keep reminding yourself who or what the character is? I've had this happen a few times. Usually it is gender that leaves me confused, and (for me) usually a female character that reads male.

One book I really enjoyed, but the "female" lead was jolting. She was supposed to be tough, swore a lot, etc. I don't have a problem with a female character swearing, but there was something about this particular character that just didn't feel right.

This book was a fantasy novel, but I had the same experience later with a mystery. In this case the female wasn't a major character, but I knew she was one I supposed to really like. I didn't. I didn't hate her, but she just didn't feel real. I couldn't connect to her--again she was "tough" but I don't think it was that... Just like in the fantasy, there was some basic feminine nuance that was missing. And yes, before you ask both books were written by a man. I don't, however, think that means men can't write believable female characters--just that these two didn't for me.

I've also had this happen with race and age. The race one, I think the problem may have been the location. The book was set in England. Therefor there were a lot of cultural things, slang, etc. that was well, English and that kept me side-tracked. Honestly, I didn't realize until I was half-way through the book that pretty much all of the characters were black. Then I had to keep reminding myself. And then it became distracting. And yes, before you ask, the author is white and to my knowledge had never written a black character before.

So, for these two examples I have to wonder if it is how the author wrote the characters or how I read them. When I think of English things, I unfairly think white. Obviously there is a big population of English people who are not white. And while I know there are women who cuss a lot and act tough and I've known some of them, none of the women I've known who fit into this tough category were the same kind of tough as these two female characters. Does that mean females like that don't exist? Should I have accepted what the author told me more readily? And how about the English black character? Was that completely me and the English thing, or did the author leave out something that would have anchored that idea in my brain? Whose fault was my surprise?

The age thing was different though. I know in this case it wasn't me, because the book was marketed as an adult book. There was no mention anywhere that these characters should be anything but adults, but over and over I kept imagining them as teenagers. They just read young. The author is an adult, but she also writes young adult novels--something I didn't realize while reading this book. So, I have to think in this case, at least, it was the author and not the expectation I had going into the book.

How often does this happen to you, and who do you think is at fault?

I'm going to be on the road, when this publishes. I'll check in, but it might be just a little late. :)


azteclady said...

Morning, Ms Devoti!

The age thing bothers me a lot, particularly with a number of paranormals where the characters are supposed to be centuries old, yet they seem to be going through the teen angst thing my sixteen year old daughter already got over.

When that happens, my willingness to suspend disbelief and follow the author's lead into his/her world is severely compromised.

My hot button on the ethnicity or race thing are--not surprisingly--Latinos in general and Mexicans in particular. Though I live in Florida now, I am Mexican by birth, lived six years in Puerto Rico and four more in Caracas, Venezuela, so I tend to approach Latinos in fiction with some trepidation.

Jess Granger said...

Well, inventing aliens is kind of fun, because I get to play with readers expectations a little, and at the same time start with a blank slate.

As a writer, I let it go a little. I let people imagine the characters as they will in a lot of ways. The experience of a book is unique reader to reader and part of that is what a reader brings into the story.

I am aware writing science fiction that people need something familiar to hold on to in order to relate to the characters and story. So because of that, I'm always working on an element of the familiar.

If I wrote the entire book in gibberish, no one would know what it meant.

Lori Devoti said...

I don't describe my characters a ton either. In fact, I'm sure some would say that was a weakness of mine, but I hope half way through people don't think WHAT? this is a woman? ;-)
Age with paranormal characters is hard though, and honestly I doubt any of us get it right. (not that we will ever know or anyone could prove it). I usually shoot for characters that read somewhere in their 30' mature, but not worrying about mid-life type of things. But if you had been around a few hundred years, even if you body was still that of a 25-year-old you would probably have a very different POV. Then you get back to what is enjoyable to read though and younging them up probably goes toward that. (Although I agree that can go too far too.)
As with most things, it probably does come down more to the person reading the book and how they see things than anything else, and that is not only darn hard to predict, but will vary by reader.

HockeyVampiress said...

I have stopped looking at the covers as a guideline for the characters. I just finished one book, the character was african american, the promo bookmarks I recieved and the book itself had a caucasian woman on them. Half way through was the first she was described as AA before it was sun kissed or golden. Another author I know had her book published in another country.... she was a wasp girl with black curly hair. The cover depicted someone with short blonde hair and more of an olive skin. The age thing with reading mostly paranormal does not bother me. I have more a a problem with all the heroines being petite little things with perfect breasts and hair. LOL