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Don’t Betray Your Characters!

Please, please, be careful not to betray your characters. When you build a character that readers have fallen in love with, and then it all comes crashing down for no good reason, it can actually be painful for a reader who is emotionally invested. And the reaction that follows might not be positive. Think books being thrown across the room and terrible ranty reviews, and angry warnings to all their friends to never read your books every time one of them is brought up, even after months or possibly years have passed. (Trust me, I’m speaking from experience here… this whole blog entry was sparked by a late night discussion with Lauren that quickly devolved into rants about series and books — which will remain unnamed, because I’m a professional, but still! — that we are actively angry about…) Anyway…  DON’T BETRAY YOUR CHARACTERS!

Ideally, when you are doing things right, your characters will grow and change and develop into full-fledged people. Every detail you add builds that character in the reader’s head — from body language to quip-y dialogue and/or painfully honest emotional confessions to grand gestures — and you HAVE to keep that growth and change believable and consistent so that you don’t suddenly throw bright red paint over everything and completely ruin the masterpiece you are building.

Every action that your character takes needs to flow logically from the information that you have already shared about that character. If it doesn’t, your reader WILL take notice. Promise.

For example, let’s say, you create a character that can most easily be described as the steadfast best friend. This is a character who is always there for the heroine, and who places the heroine’s welfare above their own. They reliably make selfless choices, and can always be counted on for help.

At this point, you’ve built a character that the reader loves and relies on to save the day. But then, for plot reasons, you realize that you need the main character to feel isolated and alone… That’s a problem, since you have this wonderful steadfast best friend there for them to rely on. And you can’t suddenly send them away to summer camp or on a family vacation, because you are going to need them for that big action scene you have coming up. The only choice is to have the best friend character act like a total douchebag and suddenly push the main character away… for reasons…  There! Your character is alone! The plot can move forward! Right?

WRONG.

You have just lost every single reader who has latched onto and identified with your best friend character. They are probably so angry with you at this point that they can’t even focus on your main character’s emotional trauma. This is what I like to call “the book throwing moment.” All serious readers have had them. The reader’s favorite character has been ruined. Depending on the severity of the offense, the reactions can vary from momentary distraction and a lingering unsettled feeling that comes from the loss of your suspension of disbelief to ignoring the main plot while you count down the pages until the author FIXES THIS to giving up on a book or series entirely.

Regardless, the reader will have noticed your involvement in forcing your characters to act in a way that is not natural, and will lose trust in you as an author.

This is why it is important to follow your characters, and allow them to grow naturally. What would they really do at this point in the story? Don’t make them act out of character, just for convenience or to move the plot along.  Don’t betray your characters. Because readers fall in love with characters before they fall in love with authors, and will turn on the writer before they turn on the character.

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So, Swooners, what were some of your “book throwing moments”?

Author spotlight

Holly West

Senior Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Dedicated fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

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