When Readers Hate Your Characters

So. Beauty For Ashes released last month, and the reviews came in from bloggers and from Amazon readers. I’ve received my share of positive reviews, but I’ve been surprised at the strong reaction to one of my secondary characters from some readers. One reader said Mary made her so mad she wanted to throw the book across the room. Another said Mary is a woman you love to hate.  One very thoughtful reviewer asked whether disliking a character meant the author had done her job and if so, was it fair to award fewer stars.

I’ve been a student of writing fiction for almost twenty years, published  since 1995,  and one of the first things I was taught was that stories must have conflict. A second lesson: characters must grow and change as a result of the events of the story.  In the case of Mary Stanhope Bell, she first appears as a demanding, thoughtless and even lazy person who gives my main character, Carrie, a hard time at every turn.  Conflict! This was by design. I wanted my readers to identify with Carrie’s struggle to get along with Mary, and I wanted them to see by the end of the book how Carrie’s kindness and duty to her family changed Mary’s heart and transformed her into a more sympathetic character. But it seems that some readers focused only on Mary’s faults and  ignored her growth as the story unfolded.

I had a talk with my editor about this. She supported my portrayal of Mary as both realistic and essential to  the central theme of the story. But it’s clear that  some readers wanted Carrie and Mary to be best friends…no accusations, no harsh words, no slammed doors. Everything all sweetness and light. But life isn’t like  that. At least mine isn’t.  And  stories without sufficient conflict aren’t compelling enough to keep me as a reader engaged. I’ve always felt that if  my stories evoke strong emotions in the reader, then I have done my job. Of course I’d love it if every single reader fell in love with my stories, but that is as unrealistic as a story without conflict.

A novel is a fictional expression of a universal truth. I intend to continue writing stories peopled by characters who are flawed, cantankerous, even at times unlovable. Not to do so would be to avoid truth, to deny our very  humanity and to ignore our potential for change and for grace both mortal and divine.

What about you? Do you like reading and writing about characters that make your blood boil? Or do you prefer stories without much conflict? Inquiring minds want to know.

14 thoughts on “When Readers Hate Your Characters

  1. Carole Brown

    Dorothy, I loved your post! It helped ease some of the conflict I’ve dealt w/other characters who are purposely planned to be problematic. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Cynthia Hickey

    I love “real” characters. I want to read about characters I love, and characters I hate. I strive to write just such characters. Life isn’t all sugar and light. There are authors who write that, and there are those who don’t. Thank God for variety.

    1. dorothy Post author

      Cynthia, I totally agree–we need variety. I wish though that reviewers would not trash a book because it has unlovable characters….but as my editor said, I will never please everyone….Thanks for commenting here. I appreciate the feedback. Keep on writing those “meanie” characters. 🙂

  3. Gwendolyn Gage

    Hi Dorothy,

    I’m with you — if the story doesn’t have conflict, it’s boring, and conflict comes from other characters. I don’t know why some books with unlovable characters get great reviews, and others don’t (a reviewers opinion is so subjective), but I do know that we can’t please everyone. We’re only required to do our best for God’s glory. 🙂

    1. dorothy Post author

      Hi Gwendolyn (what a great name!!) Appreciate your comments here and esp the reminder that we are doing God’s work as best we can….:)

  4. Stephen Myers

    Thanks for a great blog post. I may respond by the loops as it may be a bit long here, but the summary I’d offer is that sometimes ‘people just don’t get it,’ (the point of the characters) and ‘some do but don’t like it,’ either being similar to that character and God using it to address issues in their lives. The other possibility is they have been wounded or betrayed by a similar character in their life (who bullied them) and they have not yet healed or forgiven them, are still in resentment, and perhaps your book has prompted them to be freed from the event through a similar gesture or process.

    In any respect I’m in awe you have readers so vocal and responding to your work. In oil field terms you hit a ‘gusher.’ (Humor). You hit a nerve and have feedback. That should be major encouragement. As an unpublished (pre-published) hopeful attending the 2012 ACFW conference in September, I am encouraged by your post. I hope I remember to interpret both pro and con response to my novels should they ever see the light of day, that reader response is not always as it first appears in criticism without discernment what motivated their response to a character or story I’ve written. We, perhaps as colleagues, who write what God seems to inspire in us, should, after taking a blow of criticism, focus on what God may be doing with us as well. I think its great you are having such a strong response from your readers!

    1. dorothy Post author

      thanks, Steven. I guess having readers who are emotionally engaged one way or the other is better than being ignored. 🙂 I appreciate your thoughtful comments. Good luck with your writing. It’s a long journey sometimes, but very much worth it.

  5. Sherri Wilson Johnson

    I have always loved characters that make my blood boil and I don’t like when everything is wrapped up all nice and neat in a bow. Life rarely happens that way. At least not over here in my corner of the world. In real life, you can’t make people do what you want them to do. You can’t make them behave. No matter how hard you try to steer them away from sin, they do it anyway. And then they get mad at you when all comes crumbling down and ask why you didn’t stop them. Ugh! (Sorry, I’m kind of passionate about that.) And sometimes the friendship ends before it ever got started. That’s life and I like books like that. I like to read them and to write them. Keep up the good work!

    1. dorothy Post author

      Sherri, I appreciate your comments here. Life is messy!! One of the reasons I love writing is that a story can show us the possibilities for grace and for change. That was my intent when I created Mary. 🙂

  6. Cathy Richmond

    Thank you for writing such a realistic character as Mary Stanhope – she reminded me of a difficult coworker! If Mary hadn’t been so awful, Carrie would never have left her beloved home. Mary’s behavior showed Carrie’s true character. The tough times she survived made her a heroine to applaud. I wish I could handle difficult people with as much grace and strength as Carrie!

    Thank you for keeping it real, Dorothy!

    1. dorothy Post author

      thanks so much, Cathy. I think most of us have known someone like Mary at one time or another. 🙂 I know I have, and I have not always handled the situation as gracefully as Carrie did. But that is one of the beauties of stories–they can be roadmaps or reminders of what we ought to do….Thank you for checking in here.

  7. Rebecca DeMarino

    What a great post! Life isn’t all vanilla, and we learn more from the hard times than we do when everything is going our way. I loved how you portrayed Mary and I really thought you did an excellent job as a writer showing realistically how Carrie reacted to it and how in the end both women grew in character. God won’t always remove the thorn in our side, but He can comfort us while we learn to handle it! I love the insights a reader could come away with if they are open – please keep striving to touch your readers in that way! That makes it a five star for me!

    1. dorothy Post author

      thank you so much! I love your comment about the thorns in our sides. So true. And thanks for your kind words about Beauty For Ashes.

Comments are closed.