Following yesterday’s entry about ‘Hate Mail’ or more accurately, one particular reaction to one story, I’ve had some interesting replies. Some of them agreeing with me, having received similar messages themselves, some sympathising with the correspondent.
Now, let’s be clear about this, I don’t begrudge the correspondent his opinion, and I make no judgments about him. I merely found his reaction interesting and was trying to explain it to myself. The common theme running through the e-mails I received since yesterday’s post is that the correspondent clearly had issues with ‘cheating’, probably because he’d been cheated on himself. Now, yesterday I said he’d made assumptions about my characters but I’ve just made one hell of an assumption about him too. I could well be wrong.
A question this issue has raised for me is ‘do we as writers have a responsibility to the varying sensibilities and feelings of the people who read our work. Should, for example, I have made Roy in “Reunion” more of a pantomime villain in order to excuse Matt and Kelly’s affair? Or should I have made Matt stick to his original ethical assessment of the situation and steered well clear until Roy was out of the way. Of course, the problem with the second one is that Roy would never have been out of the way because it was only meeting Matt again that gave Kelly the strength to leave him.
Should we, as writers, recognize that our stories are read by real people, and that those people will ultimately form some kind of bond with our characters (assuming we’re doing our job well that is) and may be hurt by their actions? But if we do that, and tone down the stories as a result, aren’t we compromising ourselves? Doesn’t it make our plots and characters weaker? And isn’t that hurting the readers even more?
Good fiction is challenging fiction and good characters are challenging characters. Villains shouldn't be totally bad—they need some sympathetic characteristics to make them human. And as I said yesterday, the best heroes are flawed heroes because it’s not much of a story if you know they are going to win—it’s much better if there’s a chance they may fail or give in to temptation.
I think that the four best stories I have written have been the ones which have challenged the reader. “Reunion” challenges the reader to understand the motives of the two main characters even though their behavior is not always appropriate. “Claire” has a challenging ending that I know from correspondence has left many people in tears. “Charlotte’s Secret” has four main characters who all have major faults, and who’s actions are all questionable—but they are all trying to do the best for their ‘family’. (And on a side note, the ending to this always makes me cry, but for different reasons to ‘Claire’.)
As for ‘Lost and Found’ (which I don’t yet have a publication date for at Ruthie’s), well—who’d want to be one of the characters in that story? There’s only one person who’s read this story the whole way through, and she’s told me that the reason she thinks it’s the best thing I’ve done is “it’s like being on a roller-coaster. It makes you feel all sorts of emotions and leaves you drained.” (not her exact words, I paraphrased).