Friday, October 3, 2014

What you expect vs. what you get

Once upon a time, in 2008, I had a very long exchange of words with a reader of my webcomic.

To give you a little history, this weekly fantasy comic began on May 20, 2005 and was developed based on novels I wrote throughout my college years (from 1996 to 2000). The five years in between were spent fiddling with the books in the mistaken belief that they would become publishable. I eventually realized they would never be publishable, for various reasons, but the characters were special to me and I still wanted to share them. I decided to create Negative One as a way of bringing them to life and getting to include readers in their adventures without feeling any obligation to make it traditional. I could be as indulgent as I wanted, and people who wanted to read it (for free, of course) could do so.

My readers were generally an odd sort. Since my webcomic incorporates a lot of text and includes a massive amount of navel-gazing, it's not surprising that the audience was generally patient, tolerant, and had a tendency to enjoy character-oriented stories. Some of them were ramblers, just like I am, and some of them liked dumping that rambling into my inbox to talk about the story. It was kinda fun.

But then one reader decided to write me a 2700-word diatribe on why a developing plot point was the objectively wrong thing to do, with some well-intentioned but ultimately condescending commentary on why I needed to listen to her or else I was going to lose all my readers. She was sorry to discourage me, she said, and worried that her criticism would make me stop writing, but she just had to say it in the hopes that she could save my story from my bad decisions. Included, among other things, were the following points:
  • My story is too sad now, so I need to resolve the sad plot point in this specific way.
  • My story doesn't make any sense at all unless it resolves this way.
  • Because it is based on novels I've already written, I must be "married" to my flawed ideas and that's why I'm "forcing" it to include this bafflingly sad plot point.
  • I have a responsibility to my readers to either give them what they want or warn them upfront that they will not be getting it (somehow).
  • I am clearly not listening to my characters or respecting their agency if I'm trying to "force" them into a plot that develops away from what this reader wants.
  • This reader and her sister have agreed that there is no reason to keep reading my story if X doesn't happen, so it's pretty obvious that the majority of my readers probably feel the same way.
  • This reader is also a writer, and has personally had experience with drastic revisions. She has had the heartbreaking experience of scrapping huge plot points to save the integrity of a story. To be a good writer, I must also learn this skill.
  • This reader sees where my story should "naturally" go, and since I am "fighting" this development by doing something else, any other storyline would be "contrived" and, again, an obvious symptom of being too attached to the original drafts of my novels.
  • I am clearly at a huge crossroads with a big decision to make about whether I will do the right thing or the wrong thing with my story, and the right thing is to do a, b, c, d, and e in this order, but taking it somewhere else will constitute betraying my true story and my readers. (She assured me that my readers would leave in droves if I keep the sad plot point instead of reversing it, and that--"by far"--she is not the only one who feels the way she does.)
Obviously this reader is making some pretty audacious claims here--projecting her own opinions onto my audience, telling me there's only one logical way for my story to progress, lecturing me on writing skills I must lack and practical lessons I must have yet to learn if I disagree with her--but she represents kind of an extreme end of a pretty common phenomenon. People read for their own reasons. If their reasons for reading aren't satisfied, they are very likely to blame the author instead of chalking it up to personal opinion. And though this reader did eventually acknowledge that her opinion wasn't universal and that her conclusions were based on assumptions that in some cases led her astray, she did throw down an ultimatum: "I will stop reading your story if you don't change what you're doing."

As an author, I think it's best to accept that rather than trying to be all things to all people.

Your story loses its center and its connection to your individual storytelling if it is primarily controlled by what other people want it to do. And even though you will sometimes get comments and criticism that imply you have failed or written something objectively bad when certain readers don't like it, that is a very different thing from comments and criticism that are constructive. Listening to criticism is important, and yes, multiple readers identifying the same problems indicates you probably do need to rethink. However. . . .

I got a LOT of mail about this plot point. This was the only one that told me outright (or even implied) that I was being unreasonable. The comments on the ensuing issues included people sharing their own experiences with the same sad thing and discussing how emotionally invested they were in the story. Some expressed the wish for a happy ending. None of them indicated that failure to resolve the plot in this particular way would make them stop reading. And quite a few of them--after journeying with the characters through some sadness--were also able to get invested in the outcomes that DID manifest instead of telling me whatever they have in mind for my characters is not only superior to whatever I could possibly have in store for them, but also the literal only acceptable way this story can go without losing readers.

To be perfectly blunt, my webcomic went to a place very few stories will, and I think that's one of the things that made it what it was. The sad storyline involves parents whose child goes missing. There's not a lot sadder in the world than losing a child. This reader explained (in a strangely circuitous, almost sing-song way) that my story was just too good to "ruin" with a terrible tragedy like this, and that my readers will be expecting the parents to find their child ASAP. Well, they don't. And the story is about what happens after the unthinkable. How they dust themselves off and go on living. How they rise from the ashes. And how there are aspects of them that never do heal. I think it's a story worth telling.

I explained to the reader that actually this is some people's reality. In the time and place this story was set, over one thousand children per year were going missing and never being found. (It's more now.) She didn't care. She said it doesn't matter to her if it's realistic; she doesn't read stories for realism. She reads them to feel certain things that she goes into the story expecting, and it is an author's obligation to deliver those feelings. She went on to say I should disclose the unhappy situation before people get "burned" by my story, because it's misleading and disingenuous for me to set a story up with a missing child plot and then refuse to write about the child being found. I am not sure how this disclaimer could realistically be delivered, actually, but it was sort of a shock to imagine that this reader basically expected me to anticipate what plot lines are unacceptable in enough people's eyes to somehow release a statement warning them against getting invested. I'm pretty sure romance novels don't come with a disclaimer foreword warning readers that the heroine will be choosing Guy A and not Guy B, so if you're a Guy B fan, don't read.

I came to be thinking about this when I accidentally found our e-mails while looking for something else, and thought I'd share a relevant part of my response to her. Maybe this will be interesting to writers who have struggled with readers' expectations.

I like when an author has the courage to disappoint me.  Not to say I like being disappointed.  Because what it does is reinforce the realism (very important to me!) and remind me that I don't know where it's going--it's not predictable and hackneyed.  It bothers me if I'm reading a supposedly thrilling adventure story where people are in mortal danger and I am certain because of the way it's written that nobody is going to die.  This is not that I *want* them to die, but that I want to be assured that it is possible.  Otherwise, their battle with mortal danger is a farce.  I hate it when I can tell by the way something is written that everything is gonna be fine at the end.  For adventures to feel real, we have to be sure that the characters really are in danger, not protected by their role as the protagonist or important secondary role that still has to play out. 
One of my favorite authors, Eoin Colfer, did this superbly when he killed a major character in one of his books just when I was starting to think nothing bad would ever happen to one of the good guys.  Best of all, the character's death was not "the only way" or set up as some kind of necessary or noble sacrifice.  It was a fairly stupid death that they just didn't move fast enough to stop.  The death touched the other characters and motivated them, but it wouldn't have been *necessary*.  What was *necessary* about it was that suddenly *the unthinkable could happen*.  Oh!  This author kills people!  Nobody is safe!  You are reassured by stuff like this that you are doing more than reading a story.  Eoin Colfer did not bring the dead character back from the dead or use his death as a necessary springboard for the future events.  Seeing the other characters work through their grief, experience guilt over what they did and didn't do when he was alive, and showing the thoughtless evil behind his death were all just brilliant experiences.  I didn't want him to die, but I was bowled over by the good his death did to the story.  It is super-duper important to me that the story be told not as "so how are they going to get out of this?" but rather as ". . . ARE they going to get out of this?"

This is why I cannot and will not reassure my audience that Amanda isn't going to be found.  You don't know (if you don't e-mail the author or research her other work, anyway), and that's the way it should be.  It's about respect, reality, and good writing, not about what various stripes of my audience might or might not be reading hoping to see.  I don't accept that I have the responsibility you say I have.  That's not how I think it's supposed to be.
I doubt I'll lose my audience because I'm writing things the audience wouldn't have thought likely or pleasant.  You can't refuse to read Old Yeller because the dog dies at the end.  If you completely fixate on not wanting the dog to die, you lose what else is good in the story--what was so great about the dog that made you not want him to die.  Your suggestion that I'm at a crossroads makes no sense to me.  I can't think of a crossroads I'm at, and while I've gotten a ton of reaction-related mail all along with Negative One, none but yours suggested I was in danger of losing readers over my plot.  Assuming there's nothing to look forward to if Amanda doesn't get found is kind of bad reasoning.  I've got a good track record, I thought.  So, trust your writers if you enjoy their work, especially if (as you suggested in my case) the writing hasn't gone downhill.  I'm not committed to tragedy or depressing writing.  I'm just realistic.  I'll continue to be.

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