Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A question of character... among other things

This blog post is a segue from Piper's post on Wednesday. She asked about the other genres we read, and that got me to thinking about how genre can affect both the kinds of characters who appear in a story, and the way those characters are portrayed.

Romances are good at digging deep into the characters' souls so that we get a full glimpse of whom we're reading about. Why do you think that is? What methods do these authors use to flesh out their people enough to make them bleed on the page? I think some writers do an excellent job of letting the details around the characters assist in defining them as real human beings. That also goes for detailed observations made by the characters themselves. For example, a character who is focused on, say, the preparation of a meal and describes in loving detail each ingredient, how it tastes, how the dough feels in her fingers, the way the scent of baking apples reminds her of her grandmother, etc.

In a mystery novel, maybe the character approaches the cooking scenario from a totally different perspective. The woman is a private detective and her observations are more in line with ferreting out clues to catching a killer.

In a science fiction novel, the very concept of cooking could be totally foreign because the characters in the story simply push a button to get sirloin tips, roasted baby potatoes and a Caesar salad, hold the croutons.

A horror novel might have the chef baking up something really different and not very appealing to mainstream taste buds, if you know what I mean.

Point is, the genre can affect how the character is presented. Sensual, pragmatic, logical, horrible… whatever. These people are different and present themselves in different ways.

Now what if you had an outside-the-box character, one who didn't fit conventional norms. How would this person be portrayed? A mentally ill character in the kitchen. Hmm… Now that's an image. Would this character act and react in a predictable way? Probably not. So if you had, say, an autistic character making pancakes, would their lack of emotional connection to the act of cooking make you feel disconnected from the character because you can't relate?

Maybe we choose to read the genres we read that are only in our comfort zone. Someone who doesn't care for military novels or political thrillers may not relate to those characters and therefore find the story boring, even if it's the most fascinating plot ever to hit the best seller list. Does that make these books uninteresting? No, just uninteresting to you. Could you critique one? Or more to the point, could you critique a genre you don't read?

We often hear that good writing is good writing, no matter the genre. True. I guess. But can you feel connected to a well-written book on a subject or in a genre you don't understand or like? I know I can't. I could probably detect if it's "well-written," but as far as the characters go, I might struggle. The tough as nails soldier who spouts military jargon would glaze my eyes over. The politician who schemes to do… whatever would have me setting the book down to go clean the toilet. And an erotica novel? I won't even go there. (*cough* icky *cough*)

When it comes to critique, or contest judging, I believe it's important to stay within the genres we understand and enjoy. I'm curious to know what you think. Does it make any difference to you? Can you critique or judge anything and feel you can do the work justice?


Paty Jager said...

I see what you're saying, Karen. I do think if it is well written you can see that no matter if you like the genre or not, but I can also see that if it is a genre you don't like, it would be hard to stay with the book to the end.

I always try to judge things within my comfort level and since I do read most everything, I think I can be a fairly objective judge. I may not like the content of something, but if the words are put together in an appealing/intriguing way it will resonate with me.

Sometimes good writing is making the reader uncomfortable. I read Nora Roberts Carolina Moon when it first came out. It creeped me out, but I kept reading it because she made me care enough about the character to keep reading. And don't laugh and roll your eyes Eli- you've learned it doesn't take much to creep me out! LOL I don't want to see or hear another dragon again!

Interesting blog!

Karen Duvall said...

Hee hee, Paty. 8^) You'd get really creeped out by what I'm writing now. Snicker, snicker.

It's great that you'd have no problem critiquing or judging genres you don't like. I've heard so many instances where contest entrants complain about the judge they had not getting their genre. The judge criticized and marked down points on specific things like "too much technical jargon" for a scifi book, or "too much blood and scary stuff" for a horror book. If I were to judge something I didn't like, I'd probably do a disservice to the author in the opposite way; I wouldn't catch the mistakes I should. I'd be making the assumption that since I knew nothing about XYZ, then the author must know. Not exactly helpful on my part. Sigh. So I've learned only to judge what I know well.

Critique, on the other hand, is a bit different. I can always critique with a caveate that I'm clueless about XYZ, but here's what I have to say about craft yadda yadda.

Anonymous said...

Oooh, interesting post Karen! (btw... You might want to go back and change the date on your post to Thursday, instead of Wednesday. Maybe. Or, not. Whatever.)

I really liked all your ideas and examples. I have no idea why romances dig deep into the characters' souls, but I'm sure glad they do. That's probably why I don't read outside the romance genre. Characterization is so vital.

I think that writing a character that's outside the box may be fun to try but, if no one can relate to them then it's not worth the effort. :)

And yeah, it's hard to try and connect with a book that's not in my general preferred genre. I have judged contests that were in romance genre's I'd never read before and it was cool, but it was sort of difficult at first. I found that I had to go back through it a few times and get a better feel for it before I could pronounce all required judgments on it. If that makes sense. LOL

I'm with you on being able to make the "good writing" call, but I have to stretch to really judge a story I have no interest in, so I guess I can do it, but don't prefer to.

Really interesting, fun post! I love it when I actually have to think. rofl

Anonymous said...

Paty-- I love dragons. Even though that nasty dragon killed Gerard Butler's character in Reign of Fire, I still really like dragons. LOL

Karen-- There's no way I could judge horror or erotica. Horror is too scary and I don't want it in my head and (to me) erotica is so ridiculous that I'd be too busy rolling my eyes and being bored. LOL

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I'm not trying to be offensive to anyone who writes or enjoys horror and/or erotica. I just have a lot of black and white opinions. :)

Alice Sharpe said...

Karen -- Piper and Paty are right, this is an interesting blog.

I think the caveat in what you're saying, for me, might be buried in the following passage from your blog:

"Someone who doesn't care for military novels or political thrillers may not relate to those characters and therefore find the story boring, even if it's the most fascinating plot ever to hit the best seller list."

I would assume that if the plot is the most fascinating one to ever hit the best selling list, it would encompass universal truths and therefore universal appeal. I.e., a real right wing gun toting war monger book might be fascinating because the author would have to create more than a one dimensional character and in those other dimensions, we might find something we could understand and relate to. And sometimes the premise is so interesting that we go along with characters that aren't as well developed (think Jurassic Park or Dan Brown's wildly successful novel of a couple of year ago, the title of which I can't remember at this moment to save my life.)

That said, I have my comfort zone as well and when it comes to relaxing reading, that's where I stay. I would judge within that zone for the same reasons you mention.

Autistic person making a pancake? I would think that would be very interesting and if the author was well grounded in the subject of autism, might give me an inside view of a disease I don't know much about. By using something so relatable (cooking) which I approach in my own life with my own take, might I then not get a better understanding of how differently the world looks to our rainman?

THanks again for a thought provoking blog.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Interesting post, Karen.

(And Alice, Dan Brown's popular novel from a few years ago was The DaVinci Code.)

Personally, I think interest (at least for me) has more to do with voice and style than it does phenomenal plot or extraordinary characters. If I don't like the writer's voice, I won't stay with the book even though it's the most unique plot to hit the fiction world, ever. Right now I'm reading an RS I got at the workshop. Interesting characters, interesting plot, interesting location, good writing...but I keep putting it down and can't get into it. There's nothing "wrong" with it, but it's not holding me. I think it has more to do with voice and style than anything else.

As far as other genres go...I can easily read in another genre if the voice is compelling enough. I have certain genres I like to read, but I'll step outside my comfort zone if I enjoy a writer's style. AS for critting, though...for me critting and judging correctly encompasses more than just grammar and spelling. In order to be able to give good feedback I think you have to understand at least something of the genre. For that reason, I don't think I'd be good at critiquing or judging historicals.

Karen Duvall said...

Piper, it is good to stretch our wings sometimes and try new genres, like you mentioned you've been doing in your blog yesterday. For me, I'm so selfish with my reading time that I'm super cautious about the genres I pick up mainly because I've been burned by why I'd consider boring books (*cough* DaVinci Code *cough*) that are only boring to me. Sigh. So I have to get over it! Brave the multi-genre world! 8^) I should follow your example and stop being such a wuss.

Karen Duvall said...

Alice, I so didn't like Brown's book, regardless of it's popularity. So even though the idea was fabulous, and I don't dispute that one bit, it bored me to tears because of the writing. Kind of like what Eli said, the same thing happens to me when I read a book that "works" but isn't compelling to me.

The autistic character is an interesting one. Rainman making pancakes, lol! I think odd characters are fascinating, like Monk (started out as a mystery series turned TV show, and is Kay's favorite) with his OCD. He's wildly popular. Creating him must have been such a challenge for the author!

One of the things that prompted me to write this post is because I'm writing a very complex character who challenges me constantly in making her come across in an accurate way. She's sort of the "unreliable narrator" of her own story as she often feels one way, but behaves another. She's trying to hide her vulnerability behind a veneer of toughness. Soft on the inside of a hard shell. Aack! It's a struggle. But it's important for me to make her real and not just a guy in a skirt.

Karen Duvall said...

Eli, I'm with you on the whole voice and style thing. Which is why I read sample chapters before buying a book. So it's not always genre that's at issue. I can be fooled. (grrrrr)

I enjoy paranormal fiction and that includes some paranormal romances. The problem I have with paranormal romances is that too often there's just so much angst and the blown-out-of-proportion internal conflict drives me batty. For example, Christine Feehan is a bestselling author of paranormal romance and you couldn't pay me to read her books. It's torture! I think it's mostly a pace issue for me. I start to get claustrophobic when the characters stay in one place and rehash whatever for three or four chapters at a time. Groan.

Alice Sharpe said...

Oh, Lordy, Karen, the rehashing. That's almost as tedious as endless descriptions (and that, for me, would even include a cook going on and on about silky texture, melting on the tongue, flavor nuances and memories and ...ack, run!) That woman on Food TV who cooks Italian and describes every mouthful (the one with cleavage) drives me nuts.

I was at a critique meeting once and the black hole (that's what we called this woman because like a black hole, she absorbed energy and gave NOTHING back) started reading a description of a room that included wall paper. I kid you not, that wall paper description went on and on. I can still picture the little yellow roses and green leaves and trellis.... again, ack, run!

I HATE that.

And, while I loved the idea of the Davinci Code and it hooked me like crazy, I really did not like the book.

Karen Duvall said...

LOL, Alice, on the black hole! Hee hee. Those kinds of critique partners would make a person want to swear off critique groups forever.


Genene said...

Piper and Karen -- interesting posts!

I've said I read widely (when I get the time to read!), but I'm not sure that's accurate. I read just about any subgenre of romance, but I don't really stray outside the romance genre. I want that happily-ever-after ending.

So could I be an impartial judge outside the romance genre? I'd like to think so, but probably not.

Danita Cahill said...

I think you have a good point, Karen. I'd have a hard time fairly judging a book on, say war. I don't like that sort of book, although there are some good movies out there -- We are Soldiers and Men of Honor, to name two. Same with heavy political or stories without any love interest whatsoever. There's gotta be some gravitational pull between a woman and a man (to quote Chris LeDoux) to catch my interest.

Danita Cahill said...

The Da Vinci Code, Alice. I haven't read the book yet, but watched the movie twice. I love Tom Hanks, so of course loved his character on the screen.

And I think you're right. If there are universal truths in a novel or movie, it tends to hold the attention of most. The two war, or military-based movies I mentioned are so likeable to me, I think, because they speak to the human spirit and condition, and the characters are so real and likeable.

Danita Cahill said...

I go through periods where no book will hold my interest. It depends how deeply I am into writing a book. When I am deep in the guts of one of my own novels, I live for each writing session, to find out what happens next to my characters, and selfishly, I don't much care about anyone else's characters during that time.

When I'm not writing -- like now -- I read everything I can get my hands on, and for the most part, enjoy it all, and learn from it in one way or another.

I prefer suspense with some romance, like what I write, but also read light, contemporary romance, true crime, mysteries, women's and literary fiction. Sometimes I get in a short story mood and read a bunch of those.

Danita Cahill said...


I thought you were one who stuck with a book to the end even if you weren't particularly enjoying it? I can't do that. I'll give them the first 40 or 50 pages and then if it doens't hold my interest, it's onto the Goodwill pile for that book.

I also like to read horror, paranormal and anything by Pearl S. Buck. I agree with Eli about voice. Wavy loaned me a book by Jennie Shortridge. She used first person present tense like I tend to, and I loved the writer's voice. I plan to read any others she writes simply because of her voice. Well, also because she delved into mental illness, which I find fascinating in characters. Gives them a whole nother angle, doesn't it?