Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Characters: Acceptable vs. Unacceptable Flaws

I should preface this post by saying I've made it a personal policy to avoid my books' pages at Goodreads.  Readers resent writers who are constantly peering over their shoulders, and I don't need to be driven to distraction by all those ratings and reviews.  This means I'm pretty much in the dark about how my work is being received there.

Anyway, one of my fellow Dreamspinner authors recently let me know she read and liked precious_boy . . . then noted how some other readers' reactions were illustrative of my previous blog post.  Specifically, said readers were troubled by you-know-which scene involving the protagonist and his former lover and downgraded the book accordingly.

Okay, no surprise there.  Some early reviewers were also bothered by the scene.  But this post isn't about that novella.  Rather, my fellow author's reference to reader reactions got me thinking. 

The vast majority of m/m romance fans claim they prefer flawed characters.  But what does "flawed" mean?  Clearly, there's a difference in people's minds between acceptably flawed and unacceptably flawed.  So, which weaknesses, evils, mistakes, lapses in judgment are acceptable and which aren't?  Does a reader's degree of leniency depend on the author?

For example, most readers were extraordinarily forgiving of Tor in Bareback when he went on his secret cheating spree.  Ditto Jake in the AE Mysteries when he flung Adrien around.  Those behaviors -- extended infidelity and physical abuse -- apparently fell within the parameters of "acceptable" fuck-ups, because they didn't significantly alter readers' favorable impressions of these books.  There've been other characters in m/m romance who've also been guilty of some pretty egregious transgressions -- like rape and murder.

Back to my original question.  How flawed is too flawed?  And in which ways, under what circumstances?  What exactly are the limits of character fallibility in m/m romance?  What makes readers cross that line from admiring a story to scorning a story based on a character's actions?  Is there an element of mob mentality involved? (I really don't like what happened, but everybody else seems okay with it so I guess I should overlook it too.  Or the reverse of this.)  Are some authors given more of a pass than others, no matter how badly their characters behave? 

I think this is a fascinating topic, although it leaves me totally bewildered.  Enlighten me!       


Jenre said...

I'm going to begin this comment by saying I didn't mind that 'you know what' scene in precious_boy and completely understood the thought and reasoning behind it (although a part of me was thinking 'what are you doing, you idiot?!').

OK, maybe spoilers in this about the Adrien English series so stop reading now if you don't to know!

In the case of this type of flaw, I think the deciding factor is whether such things happen off page or not. Take old Jake for example (I never finished Bareback so I can't comment on that), I think readers would have been much more put off by his character and the things he does if the author had included a scene where Jake sleeps with Kate - or even with Paul in book 4. The fact that it happens off page somehow makes it easier to forgive (or it does for me). Do you see what I mean?

In the case of flaws, I think a good author can make me overlook any or all flaws as long as there is redemption and forgiveness.

Chris said...

I think it's a very personal thing, varying widely by reader and mood. I've never started Bareback, because I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to finish it... And I spent a lot of time being pissed at Jake and at Adrien for putting up with that crap...

Jen's last two paragraphs sum things up perfectly. :)

K. Z. Snow said...

Thanks, Jen.

Jonathan (the "offending" character in p_b) himself wondered What are you doing, you idiot? once he'd come to his sexually-sated senses ... which is why he blew out of the hotel room and later blew Donald off. But neither that nor his original, tangled motives seemed to matter much to certain readers. Hence, the nature of my question.

Okay, the "off-page" explanation makes sense -- to a point. Bad or misguided behavior is easier to overlook if it isn't shoved in a reader's face, so to speak. But didn't Jake push or throw Adrien on-page? (I never read that book; I gleaned this from what others have said.) And at least one instance of Tor's infidelity is quite graphically depicted in Bareback. So...?

I feel the same way you do about flawed characters. If I understand their motives -- and, more important, find their redemption believable -- I'm satisfied. Other readers seem to have a more stringent set of no-nos. Those are the ones I'm curious about.

K. Z. Snow said...

Chris, why do you think you wouldn't be able to finish Bareback?

Chris said...

The infidelity and hearing from enough people who's reading reactions are similar to mine that they didn't think the character redeemed himself after.

K. Z. Snow said...

Oh, okay. Still, a huge number of readers seem to have gotten past that without too much problem, which kind of surprised me (not because I couldn't get past it, but because romance readers are generally turned off by infidelity).

Tam said...

I skimmed the end of Bareback. LOL I thought it was universally loved? Huh. For me it wasn't because of the cheating thing, I just didn't care about them. No clue why, but I find them both kind of annoying so just skimmed through the drama (maybe I'm not much of a drama girl) to see how they got back together. You knew they would right? It's a romance.

I think sometimes readers themselves don't know what they mean when they say "I like flawed characters." What the hell does that mean? Something like three-dimensional characters. What? There are pop-up m/m? Yes please. What they usually mean is they hate "perfect" characters. Men who lead absolutely charmed lives, always say/do the right thing at the right time and never screw up. Perfect cooks, housekeepers, vice-presidents, pet owners, lovers, best friends, blah blah blah. What I want is NORMAL characters because I don't know anyone who is perfect, but I don't think the alternative to that guy means he has to be a cheating bastard who drowns kittens on the weekend for fun until coming to his senses and finding twu wuv. Characters who fuck up (within reason - not having read AE, can't say but physical violence against your love interest is NOT good), lose their job, get into debt, etc. are good as long as they can redeem themselves. Characters who wallow in those are not appealing.

I know there are a LOT of readers who figure once the two main guys meet that's it, everyone else is off limits. I disagree. Once you are dating exclusively then yes, but just because you met him and maybe even slept with him once doesn't mean exclusive. I've been piddling around writing some stuff that likely would not fly with those readers, quasi-open relationships and sex with others before commitment. Those seem to be no-no's in the romance world. Since I do it for fun, whatever, but everyone who says "flawed character" will have a different definition of how flawed they can stand.

Jesus Christ I wrote a thesis. Sorry.

Tam said...

I had another thought (because my last comment wasn't LOOOOONG enough). Maybe the reason people where more forgiving in Bareback is because it was a longer book (if I remember) and after you've spent 6 hours reading you feel more invested in the characters are willing to stick it out and forgive. In a novella you don't feel as connected? No clue, that's just some wacky sociological theory I'll throw out there. But the longer I read about characters, (long books or series) he more I tend to care about them and WANT to see some kind of HEA.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't finish Bareback either and often wonder why so many people love it. And yes, it was the infidelity, it was just so blatant and selfish. Also, it was inside a committed relationship.

As far as Jake in AE, (it was on page as you note KZ), I think people like the series but if you "hear" them "talking" about Jake they think he is an ass right through to the bitter (sweet) ending. IMO, Adrien is the pull in this series and he is so charming that readers forgive the author for Jake.

As for PB-that scene, while I wasn't thrilled, didn't drive me near as nuts as the two aforementioned scenes. They were not a couple, committed or otherwise.

Do you think, in your writing, that you "justified" or gave a literary reason for the act? Did the character learn something he needed to learn or did the scene push the story? If the scene is just purely to add more sex or cause extra tension, I bag off.

I didn't flounce on this book so it must have done what you wanted. 'Cause I am a total wuss when it comes to open relationships, threesomes, cheating etc. But I usually just leave off and don't rate the book at all. Readers who do rate low and then explain why they are rating it down are attempting to influence your future work and the work of other authors.

I'm not crazy about authors "looking over my shoulder" either. I just gave a review purely about the technical aspects of a book and the author came right back at me. I disengaged but I wanted to say "WTF?-stay on your side of the church!"

Love your books!

Lily said...

I haven't yet read the AE series although I've got all of the books in my TBR. I had bought the first book, actually the first two in one volume, and thought I'd wait to have the whole series before starting it. Then I started hearing things about Jake and kind of lost my interest. I'm sure one day I'll get to them though.

As for Bareback, I read it early in my M/M days and loved it despite the cheating. I was already heavily invested in the protags and their story and was oh so freaking shocked by Tor's actions (and being invested in them as I was I felt almost as hurt as Jake did). At the same time I couldn't put the book down. I don't like cheating and if I'd known about it beforehand I probably wouldn't have read the book but I was a newbie and so ended up suffering the shock and pain right along with poor Jake.

precious_boy was great and yes, that scene bothered me even though I could see how it worked in the overall scheme of the story. But honestly I just didn't like Donald and found the thought of going from father to son just a bit icky. Still it was another fab reading experience.

Kris said...

Jake is my fave character in the world. I adore him. <3 <3 <3

K. Z. Snow said...

I love your theses, Tam! :-D

Hm. "Not perfect." Yes, that makes sense to me too. Characters who aren't exceptional--are maybe quite ordinary and have ordinary shortcomings--OR who screw up royally but ultimately make things right.

I'm still wondering, though, what kinds of screw-ups readers are willing to forgive (or not), and under what circumstances.

Or is it too much a matter of personal taste to figure out?

Tam said...

Way too personal. It's like saying how muscular/hairy should a character be. I know what I think is too much, but plenty like em that way.

K. Z. Snow said...

Hey, that's a damn sound theory, Tam: the longer a book, the more a reader feels invested in/connected to the characters; therefore, the more willing s/he is to be forgiving and accept whatever bump-smoothing leads to the HEA.

Keep drinking whatever you're drinking. ;-)

K. Z. Snow said...

Hiya, Lori! Glad you stopped by. Thanks for the insightful comments.

"That" scene in p_b was definitely there for reason--quite a few reasons, actually--but I honestly didn't intend this post to be about my novella. I will say, though, that I hate spelling out every last thing for readers. Doing so seems condescending.(Maybe I need to rethink that!)

I hear ya about Goodreads. It just strikes me as very intrusive (not to mention weirdly obsessive) to hover around doing star counts and responding to comments. I want readers to know I'm perfectly happy to answer questions or engage in a discussion, but that's about as far as I'll go.

K. Z. Snow said...

"Jake is my fave character in the world. I adore him. <3 <3 <3"

Your nose is growing. :-D

I almost excluded you by name from my observation, but I thought it would be a lot more entertaining to see your response. Heh.

K. Z. Snow said...

Hi, Lily! Your reaction to Bareback seems to be the most common one. I never felt that wrapped up in the characters, probably because I didn't quite "get" their relationship beyond the virtually nonstop sex. The nature of their misunderstandings eluded me too. So that lack of investment, combined with the fact that cheating isn't necessarily a dealbreaker for me, left me unfazed.

I know we've gone over p_b already, but I thank you for explaining again...and for being nice. :-)

wren boudreau said...

Yes - What Jen said.

Jon seems to me to be very human. Seeing what he does - after too little self-control and too many drinks - isn't surprising at all. We already know he's a little weak when he gets horny.

I loved Bareback and the Adrien English books all. Perhaps I am more forgiving than some, or I can accept that people do stupid things sometimes. As long as there's contrition, confession, comeuppance, etc., I'm good with bad. If it's done right, I find it makes a good story to see how it's dealt with so the characters can get their hea.

K. Z. Snow said...

Welcome back, Wren!

I think you are probably more forgiving than many readers (in fact, most of y'all seem to be).

I guess I'm pickiest about the writing itself, the craftsmanship. Character behavior? Not so much, as long as I can make sense of it and I find the character(s) well drawn.