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.