Monday, May 10, 2010

The fine line between sympathetic and annoying

Okay, I have to see what you all think. I’m working on a new book and the heroine has a… let’s call it a phobia of sorts. She’s irrationally scared of something happening (something VERY unlikely) and this will lead to the moment when she believes that she can’t be with the hero.

Now, I get phobias. I do. I have a big problem with heights. REALLY big. We visited New York three years ago and went to the top of the Empire State Building. I could look out over the city, but could NOT look straight down. Can’t do it. My heart races, my palms sweat and I get dizzy. It’s bad. I couldn’t even enjoy an IMAX theater show about hang gliding. I actually got nauseated. I also have a particular hatred and, yes fear, of spiders. In fact, anything with more than four legs can really creep me out. And finally, small spaces. Hate elevators in particular. So, yeah, phobias are real and I’m sympathetic.

My question is how forgiving can we be of a character’s fear? Our characters are supposed to be heroic, yes? Strong, able to overcome. In the end, they do (she will—I promise!). But what if they come across as whiny and weak in the meantime?

So, what’s your tolerance as a reader for character flaws? They have to have them to be sympathetic and real. They have to have them to grow, to triumph, to prove to themselves that they are strong enough to face anything with and for this person they’ve fallen in love with.

But have you ever met a heroine, or hero, that you were not sympathetic toward or who started to bug you as the story goes on? I have.

I don’t want to name names, but I read a heroine once who was so worried about what her father would think that she did a bunch of really stupid things, made multiple wrong choices and eventually ran the hero off. Of course, they reconciled in the end, but I barely made it to that part. I kept wanting to yell at her “get a spine! Tell you’re a-hole father off!”. She never did and I definitely liked her less. A New York Times bestselling author who I follow faithfully also once wrote a hero who was convinced he was going to die at a very young age like his father did. This belief colored everything he did, including not wanting to get close to the heroine. I kind-of get it. His father’s death was traumatic for him, of course. But as the book went on it became less and less believable until I got to the point where I was annoyed rather than sympathetic toward him.

I don’t want that to happen. So when does a sympathetic belief turn into an annoying weakness? Anyone have an idea? I’d love to hear your opinions. And I’d love to hear examples of heroines and heroes who have blown it in your opinion!


Meg Benjamin said...

To some extent, I think it depends on how successful the author is in getting me inside the character's head, and making me like him/her despite his/her problems. And on how likeable the character is in general. If a character is a real neurotic, then the fear seems like a character flaw. If she/he is actually a great person with one blind spot, I'm more inclined to give her/him a pass.

Erin Nicholas said...

True Meg. It's easier to forgive a fear if we can totally understand where it's coming from! And we all have them right? :)

PG Forte said...

I think it all depends on the reader. We all have our quirks--and, frankly, I think they matter so much more than anything the characters say or do.

Your character can be as well written and motivated and sympathetic as all get out, but if something about them hits a nerve with a particular reader, ain't nothing's gonna save 'em.

Take Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden, for example. I like the series, like the character...or, at least, I did. But there's an incident that occurs at the end of Proven Guilty that was a total FAIL for me.

The mother in me was outraged to the point where I haven't even read the last three books yet...although I've promised my daughter I will. Probably. Some day. Maybe. I did read White Night (book 9) because I love Thomas to death, but other than that...just can't do it.

flchen1 said...

Hmm... Meg and PG have good points... if I can totally relate to the character, then I can be understanding of that weakness, but if I can't, that is going to translate into some unforgivable flaw that becomes more and more of a problem.

Maybe part of it is whether s/he comes to recognize the problem--it's one thing when s/he can acknowledge the issue and grows because of it; it's another when s/he clings to this misguided belief or way of being.

Kelly Jamieson said...

Yes I most certainly have met, I mean READ, (man I am losing it!) characters who've annoyed me. I'm not sure what that fine line is, though. I do think that a character who's self-aware and knows their little phobia or fear or issue and struggles with it, is more sympathetic than one who just lets it control their life.

Kinsey Holley said...

PG: send me an email and tell me what you're referring to - I've read all the Dresden books but they get jumbled in my mind and I can't recall how Proven Guilty ended.

In general, I like heroes and heroines who have big noticeably flaws - esp. heroines. I don't like the beautiful, brilliant, kind, quirky, perfect heroines, so when a heroine does something that annoys me, I actually like her a bit more because she's believable. I'm not talking about Too Stupid to Live, but you know what I mean.

I find that Amanda Quick's regency heroines tend to annoy me - I know they're supposed to be daffy/eccentric but sometimes they just seem stupid. And I used to think I stopped reading Anita Blake because of the weird sex, but lately I've realized - no, it's b/c she's depressing and a bitch.

I'm looking forward to reading Lead Me On because I know lots of people who found the heroine annoying but from what I've read about the book, she sounds annoying in a sympathetic way.