Tuesday, October 17, 2006

If form follows function does connection follow content?

A while back someone (I believe it was Diane C. but for the life of me I cannot find the comment) said something along the lines of readers being willing to forgive flaws in an authors style or story if the connect with the character. Of course, I could be wrong in remembering this, but the idea has been playing around in my head for a month or three. Do we as readers forgive obvious errors (grammatical, plot, etc) if we can identify or like the characters we follow? Can we forgive an obvious deus ex machine moment by the author to move along the plot (something that goes against the nature of the characters as they’ve been set forth) because we like the style or the voice?

What is your breaking point as a reader of fiction (scifi, fantasy, romance, mystery)? And when (and why) do you decide you love something enough to recommend it to friends or keep it on your bookshelf?

I ask because I just finished a novel where I did not identify with the main character and therefore could not justify any of his/her actions. I realized that had I liked this person (or even disliked them immensely but found them intriguing none the less), I would have been able to make the leaps in logic that the author wanted me to as well as forgive some shoddy story telling.

So how about it y’all. What works (or doesn’t) for you when you read?

(I put a longer column up tomorrow, but I want to incorporate some of your feedback.)


Robin L. said...

I think we can forgive a lot so long as it doesn't take us out of the story. Because, if we love the character, but then plot or structure flaws happen and we can skip over them, we probably will, but if the flaws are so egregious that it makes the character seem unreal, we (or I anyway) will get mad and throw the book across the room. ;) There's nothing worse than having disbelief suspended, only to come crashing back to earth again.

David de Beer said...

there was a column earlier on identifying with characters wasn;t there? This sort fo adds to that.

Characters I like are like friends - I'll forgive them a lot more than I would a stranger. For instance, if a friend said unintentionally said something I deemed personally offensive, I let it slide for the sake of friendship. Were it a stranger, I would 1) punch him; 2) give him a worse insult.

Characters I don't like but find interestnig are like family. I may not like them, but I can't get rid of them and allow things to slide and forgive them for things I would never take from strangers.

So, yeah, I would allow a lot of leeway in a story where I like the characters. I am also willing to forgive sloppy writing from an author I previously liked, unless he keeps it up. If the first book by an author is sloppy, I am not likely to ever try him again.

What bugs me most is inconsistency, a kind of "literary hypocrisy" on the part of the author regarding the characters.
Melanie Rawn did this:
Pol and Andry (2 chars from her books) both came into potential adulterous situations. Pol tumbled his best friend's wife, while said friend was out gettnig killed on Pol's behalf. The way Rawn presented this was as "right and fitting."
Andry did not succeed in his venture. Ok, fine, no prob, that happens. What annoyed me was the lengths Rawn went to to convince me that Andry's mere suggestion of adultery was a moral crime.
I'm sorry? And Pol?

Rawn also has a habit of telling me someone is the hero, and therefore infallible, because she says so. And vice versa.
That, I find annoying.

Plot flaws, or ridiculous and implausible plots, I don't mind too much.
I do read SF and Fantasy after all, realism is a dodgy question when applied to those genres...

stay_c said...

Two books come to mind immediately. Rebecca Drake's latest did not work for me at all because of bad story telling. Nor were the characters engaging. I was disappointed too, as several authors I do like posted her book, with clips and reviews.

But on the flip side, the first book in Nora Robert's new trilogy had a huge POV problem. She would use pronouns for the first three or four paragraphs of a new section. I would assume that the "he" or "she" referred to the same character of the last section, but that wasn't the case.

My thought in one that book was "Nora should know better." But I bought it and the next title, whereas I only checked out Rebecca's.

Maya said...

I see this as two separate issues. I think Stephen King was the one who said that a reader will permit a writer one large suspension of disbelief. It can be a really large suspension like believing in zombies, but it can only happen once. You can't keep piling improbabilities on top of improbabilities. In my reading experience, I've come to agree with this position.

The second issue about a reader forgiving a writer obvious plotting or grammatical errors is different for me. If I have a favorite author, I'll excuse a lot of small stuff because the writing is what grabs me. I'm thinking here of Kim Harrison's latest paperback. It was loaded with typos and small inconsistencies. While they irritated me, they would not stop me from buying future books.

On the other hand, if a writer starts phoning in the stories without regard for quality and focussing instead on quantity, I'll drop them like a hot potato. I'm at that point with LKH's Anita Blake series.

Elsandra said...

I have one author I keep coming back to despite all the editing errors, plots holes (what plot?), and denegration of characters and that's Laurell K Hamilton (imagine that). Her writing is like a trainwreck to me that I keep watching, waiting to see which tanker car will blow next. I guess I loved the characters so much at one time that I keep hoping Hamilton will come to her senses and write them so they are believable again instead of the mess she has now.

Otherwise, I can't think of an author I've given up due to too many errors or character assination, though some have come close on the latter.

Diane P said...

I was at a writing workshop this morning where the instructor asked us what we liked about stories.
The number one answer was that it had to engage us. A couple of us said that we had to have good characterization and have the plot move along.
The instructor came back after some discussion and said she was talking about expository writing. All of our faces fell because it was not what we were thinking about. We had to do a mind shift. We were harder on our expectations were-of course how many horrible college book did we have to read? Spoils you for expository writing.

By the way the latest NR trilogy did not engage me and I own all of her other books from the original printings.

Shanna Swendson said...

If I care enough about a character, I'm willing to forgive a lot as long as the character remains consistent and doesn't suddenly start doing stupid things that are out of character (that doesn't mean that a smart character always does smart things -- sometimes other traits like stubbornness come into play to contradict the smartness). If a character is given a set of values and priorities from the beginning, and that's what I like about the character, I'll follow that character anywhere as long as I continue to recognize the character. Ideally, it would be a great book with a great character, but if I care enough for the character, I'll get the next book even if the writing didn't thrill me.

I remember once reading an essay by a big-name bestselling author in a particular genre about how clunky a lot of writing in that genre was, and how it pulled her right out of the world of the story. The example she used was from a book I had loved enough to devour the entire series, mostly because I fell madly in love with this author's characters. Taken out of context, I have to admit that the writing in that excerpt was a bit clunky, but I'd read that book at least four times and had never noticed. I read for the story and what the people were doing, not for the words themselves.

On the other hand, I don't care how intricately a book is plotted, how beautifully it's written and how much action there is in the story, if I don't care about any of the characters, I'll have a hard time getting into the book and staying in it. Those are the books that it may take me two weeks to read because I can pick them up and put them down again at will.

Badly written and with people I don't care about? I'm usually stubborn about finishing books, but I've adopted a "so many books, so little time" philosophy lately and am now letting myself put them aside.

Amie Stuart said...

Characterization is the breaking point and 'meh' writing is the kiss of death for me. If I can't see the story for the words on the page (and I don't care about the characters), I'm gone.

Little Willow said...

I never think a character is untouchable nor do I let him or her "get away" with something just because I like the character! In fact, if I like the character that much, it would upset me, not be a shrug-that's-okay.

Eileen said...

I think we let good friends get away with some things- or we excuse thing because we like them- I think we do the same for characters. However, the more we stretch the harder it gets so there is only so far I'll go. I also find if I'm really "into" a book I'll miss things because I'm reading quickly. Example: I read DaVinci Code in something like two days. Thought it was really quite good. Then I went back to read it to see how Brown pulled it together and saw all these huge gaps/flaws in dialogue and character development.

Kate R said...

ha! I mentioned something like this in passing for SBD--only I had the opposite point. Connection is why I hated Terms of Endearment so much. If I hadn't liked the characters, I would not have cared that Winger died for no discernable reason and out of the blue.

If I hadn't given a damn, I wouldn't have been so pissed off. Oops, late for work, can't reread to see if this makes any kind of sense!

Michelle K said...

For me, different writers can get away with different things. I can ignore spelling and grammar mistakes if I'm pulled into the story. I can ignore plot holes if I care about the charcters.

But characters (and finding out what happens to them) is what keeps drawing me back to a series, even after a disappointment. I've read some books that I hated (for whatever reason) just to find out what happened to the characters.

And I've disliked books where the writing and story telling were good, but I just didn't get into the characters. I love Robin Hobb's "Assassin Apprentice" series, but could barely get through her "Live Ship Traders" series. Yet Robert B Parker can pretty much do anything he wants and I'll still keep reading about Spenser and Hawk.

So I don't think that for me, there is a definite answer. Characters are most important, but I'm willing to forgive a lot for excellent story telling.

Diana Peterfreund said...

I don't think I can say I'll forgive a story for character -- it seems to be different for every story. Sometimes I'll forgive character if the plot is right, or plot if the character is right, or both if the voice is right, or voice if the story is good, or everything if I've loved the author in the past.... there's no flow chart. If there's something i like about the story more than the flaws, I'll forgive it.

I'm not enamored of Harry, but I forgive a lot of deus ex machina and sloppy plotting in Harry Potter series. Why *is* that? Because of everything else I love about it? Try to pin me down on what that is and I don't know what I'll respond. The details and worldbuilding, to be sure, though it doesn't all make sense. Have I really loved any of them since number 3? Am I forgiving thousands of pages because "Expecto Patronum" still makes me shiver? (Okay, that's not true. I loved most of four as well.)

David de Beer said...

how odd, Goblet of Fire was the one HP I really liked. The first three were okay, but I liked the movies more (except movie 3 *shudder*). Book 5...eh, there were stuff I liked and I kept reading in the hope that something would come off it, but nothing did. Toss book against the wall? Nah, I just sold it and bought something else.
Liked the ending, but the whole sequence where Rowling kept raising my expectations and not delivering put me off the rest of the series.
I guess reasons don't always make sense. I'm still trying to figure out why I loved John Irving's books - all of them - but Fourth Hand I could not even finish. Makes no rational sense, just didn't care for it. Wasn't drawn into the story I guess.

So weird seeing Laurel Hamilton mentioned - I stood in the book store just yesterday wondering if I should give her a go! Glad I didn't now.


you know, I find some of these verificaitons so hard to read I'm beginning to doubt my humanity!

Anonymous said...

it's as much interesting premise as anything else, it's hugely subjective-I think Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice books range from mildly interesting to atrocious: the animal familiar is cliched, the hero a whiny loser of the first water who sucks up airtime that could be better given to, well, just about anyone else, and the narrative momentum and fantasy concepts hit and miss. Yet I liked her Live Ship books, which had equally annoying protagonists and equally large doses of nihilism, because the universe was better thought out (and more unique) and the story convinced me that the heroes' and antiheroes' actions mattered, for better or worse. AND NO FRICKING WOLVES.