Further thoughts on revision —

— Or: Why your editor’s (and readers’) reactions to characters in your novel may be unexpected.

I was thinking about how often Caitlin’s comments could be boiled down to: Your character needs to show more emotion in this scene.

This is not an unfamiliar comment. My Knopf editor asked me to do something similar, asking: Can you put the reader more into your protagonist’s head?

I do work on this. Honest.

But this morning these ideas sort of struck a note of familiarity. Ah hah! I exclaimed at last, and went looking for this essay.

It’s an essay by Marie Brennan on the trouble the author, as an introvert, can have in getting across a character’s reactions to the readers. And of course, you won’t succeed with all readers, so there’s no sense worrying about it.

I’m not trying to imply that all authors are introverts, btw. Just that this paticular issue might be something that applies to authors who are.

Brennen says: “Some readers love my characters for their believability or depth, while others dismiss them as lifeless cardboard. . . . as I am a fairly reserved person, my characters’ idea of demonstrative floods of emotion may not look like much to the extroverts out there.”

And there you go. Doesn’t that make so much sense? Especially when you add to it the obvious truth that the author knows what is in her characters’ heads whether they wear their hearts on their sleeves or not?

Brennen adds: “So I, not really being the sort to wave flags when I’m excited or angry or whatever, don’t tend to wave them for my characters, either. Or rather, I do — by my standards of measurement. And maybe if you’re a similar sort of person, then the things I intend to be flags register as such, and voila, you see depth of emotion. But people who are more used to wearing their hearts on their sleeves will only see a faint tick on the psychological seismograph, and think the character is made out of wood.”

I could hardly put it better. And yes, Brennen adds that this isn’t going to be the full explanation for how differently various readers perceive characterization in any particular book. Of course that’s true. But the idea really resonates with me.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I still haven’t gotten to her book, MIDNIGHT NEVER COME, which is down on my TBR shelves and has been for literally years. I swear I will get to it this year. Probably. For me, stand-alones filter toward the top of the pile and series fall toward the bottom, especially if the last book of the series isn’t out yet. I just don’t always have TIME to read a whole trilogy, if I’m supposed to be working on a project of my own. Even though I read fast.

Anybody read Brennen’s series? (Probably everybody but me, right?) What did you think of it? Her Swan Tower essays are good enough that I’m pretty confident I’ll really enjoy her books.

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4 thoughts on “Further thoughts on revision —”

  1. Makes sense to me, too, as an introvert. I don’t mind characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves, but I tend to prefer writers who do more subtle characterizations.

    Which reminds me, I’ve stalled several times on the PERSUASIAN sf-knockoff, FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS. The romance portion is painfully obvious to me. The rest of the story isn’t bad, but then she started bringing in an apparently biological apocalypse scenario yet it affects compasses, which don’t work anymore, all they do is spin. My physics courses are very far in the past, so I ran that one by my husband the physicist. He howled. Earth’s magnetic field would have to be spinning to cause compasses to spin. The author’s inclueing is fine, but I do think she needs to check her science more carefully. There are other things, too, such as I’m pretty sure the solar powered vehicles that have started turning up aren’t found but made, and you CAN’T DO THAT without an industrial base that the society hasn’t got.

    Marie Brennan’s quartet is quite worth reading, I thought, and it is finished. In many ways I like the first one best, but that may be my character bias coming in to play. The second entry has some problems of focus, IMO, but I can accept them as due to the interaction between the fairy & mortal situations, one feeding off the other, in a mood-echo-spiral sort of way. The mortal situation is Charles I & Charles II and the Great Fire. There are some powerful scenes in it. The third one starts really bringing in science to the fairy question and the fourth actually surprised me in a good way.

    She’s got a new one just out, completely different. I haven’t started it yet, but it is titled: A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS, being the memoirs of a lady dragon naturalist. She did a lot of reading on the 19th century paleontologists & explorer types.

    I’m currently reading the whole P.C. Hodgell (unfinished) Kencyrath series at our daughter’s insistence (better than I expected, after quitting on it years ago) and non fiction THE RACE TO TIMBUKTU about the 19th century European explorers who tried to get there.

  2. Oh, I’d heard of the NATURAL HISTORY one, but I didn’t know that’s what it was actually about. I think this is a must have for me! In fact, I think I’ll go order it now!

    The FOR DARKNESS problems with science would bother me, but *I’m* not a physicist, so not as much as errors with genetics. I don’t mind at all if the romance is obvious; for me, a retelling is about enjoying the play off the original, not about being surprised by plot twists.

  3. I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS at my local book shop (books take a bit longer to arrive in Australia). I read the first chapter online and it was delightful, so I have high hopes for the novel despite not having read any of Brennan’s earlier work.

  4. I didn’t even read the first chapter — it sounds like it is JUST my kind of thing. Even though I haven’t read any of her other books, either! But I’ve heard enough about them to be pretty confident. And, yep, I imagine it does take an extra week or two for books to appear in Australia!

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