1. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    Authors who (over)identify with their main characters

    Discussion in 'The Art of Critique' started by Catrin Lewis, Dec 7, 2015.

    Just throwing this out there:

    Do you ever find yourself identifying so much with your main character(s) that you find it hard to receive criticism on what they're like or how you've depicted them? How did you overcome that, assuming you have?

    Have you ever done a beta-read or a critique for an author whom you know or suspect might be a little too tied in with his or her protagonist(s)? How did you approach giving feedback on problems you've noticed, so as to avert the author's taking your criticism personally? Were you successful at getting your message across with no hurt feelings?
     
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  2. Hwaigon
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    Hwaigon Contributing Member Reviewer

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    Subject of controversy, isn't it? We're living in such politically over-correct times that identifying with the MC
    is as bad as literary blasphemy. Or herecy. I mean a lot of classics did identify with the MC and we do learn about them.
    Toni Morrison, to name one. Amy Tan. These authors totally base their stories on their own view of the world.
    And it's fine 'cos now the general opinion is in their favour but start writing something general opinion is against and you see your readers backfire vehemently.
     
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  3. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Not really but I do get annoyed when the critics suggest I change my story to one they envision.

    I just tell them, "that's not the story I'm writing."
     
  4. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I don't over-identify with either of my main characters but naturally I find them both good and sympathetic people, so it was hard to hear that people just don't like one of them. How did I deal with that? Well, my aim with this book is for people to read and enjoy it, so it's easy to accept (valid) criticism. I won't meet my goal by ignoring consistent feedback or digging my heels in and refusing to change the problem. I wouldn't ask for feedback unless I was ready to take it.

    Don't use "you" when giving them feedback. Rather than "your main character is weak", "the main character is weak". Rather than "you haven't got this across clearly", "this isn't clear". The problem is with the story, not the author. Of course, it's essentially the same thing, but it makes the blow softer and helps them be more objective about it.

    If they were being defensive or argumentative I wouldn't enter into dialogue with them. I'd give my feedback and ignore any replies that argue with me or try to justify the problem. All I'd respond to was requests for clarification when my feedback wasn't clear. But if they were non-defensive and just genuinely confused about the problem, I would take the time to discuss it back-and-forth until they understood my position.

    If I felt my feedback wasn't being entertained at all because they couldn't accept that anything was wrong with the character, and if I was busy or had other more open-minded people to swap feedback with, I might put an end to the beta swap.
     
  5. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I haven't noticed this when beta-reading, and for the manuscripts that someone has actually read I haven't written characters that have been such direct manifestations of me I would feel offended or hurt when the beta-reader actually thinks the character is being foolish, annoying, etc.

    I've only once written a story with a "me" in it. It was a strange experience, although I don't have anything against doing that per se 'cause I think I'd make a cool character :D. Just kidding. But anyway, I think if/when someone else reads that manuscript and if they turn out to intensely dislike her, it's like I have two options: I either misrepresented the character or I'm an intensely unlikable person. :D

    But come to think of it, perhaps I could word myself better when giving feedback just in case the author has written themselves into the story and I end up heavily criticizing their actions, morals, etc. On the other hand, I do believe anyone who puts their work out here, be it a book, song, film etc. just has to grow a thick skin and deal with criticism, even when it's not dressed in polite, amiable clothing.
     
  6. KhalieLa
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    KhalieLa It's not a lie, it's fiction. Contributor

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    I don't identify with my characters nearly as much as I've been accused of. Those who have read my work make value judgements against me based on the writing. It's irritating when people say, "I certainly hope you don't do those things!" (Because I am secretly a demi-god who clearly has thing for kinky dwarf sex! Though I don't know how many times I've revised and edited that book and I still haven't found the kinky dwarf sex. And I'm more than a little disappointed about that because I'd like to read it!)

    When someone accuses you of over-identifying with a character or writing yourself in to the book, then it's usually because they have issues they need to resolve, not you. I had one woman start listing all the people my MC had sex with in an attempt to prove to me that my MC was overly promiscuous. (There were only 4 sexual encounters in the entire book.) I ended up saying things like, she never had sex with Character X, Character X is gay, sorry you missed that. She never had sex with Character Y, Character Y is impotent, he hasn't had sex in 15 years, sorry you missed that. She never had sex with Character Z, she was never alone with Character Z and I don't recall writing any orgies.

    When I critique someone I tell them what I want to see as a reader. I don't care who they are as a writer. Example, "I'd like to see more emotion from the character here," or "This was confusing and seems to contradict what was said on page 93. Is there a reason for the change? If so please explain." And my personal favorite, "The italics are annoying, please stop it!" I've never assumed the writer was putting their personal life on display.
     
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  7. Robert Musil
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    Robert Musil Contributing Member

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    If you don't mind my asking, just how wide/diverse is your group of beta readers? I'm getting the impression that they're all, like, the Church Lady from those old SNL skits.

    To answer the OP's question: I think I get around this by just writing characters that I don't have any sympathy for. Not sure what that says about me as a person. I just don't think writing about someone I would like IRL would be all that interesting.
     
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  8. Catrin Lewis
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    Catrin Lewis Contributing Member Contributor

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    @Tenderiser
    Yes, this is good advice, and it should have been obvious to me. I'm afraid in my comments so far I have a lot of "Did you really intend Miss Main Character to be so [fill-in-the-blank-with-something-negative]? Because that's how she's coming off." I'd better go back and reword those before sending my feedback off.

    What I'm dealing with here is an author who told me straight up that her MC is a younger version of herself (or rather, just like she used to be when she was 20). Now, since I started this thread, she's clarified that she's written the novel as a YA cautionary tale, so other girls won't be as clueless as she was.

    Well, okay. Meaning my job is simply to say how the MC is manifesting herself, and let the author decide if that's what she intended, without me implying she's nutz to do so.

    :bigoops:
     
    Last edited: Dec 9, 2015
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  9. KhalieLa
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    KhalieLa It's not a lie, it's fiction. Contributor

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    The group of beta readers was neither wide nor diverse. Just three so far and I was connected to them through the library and local book seller. I currently live in a community where non whites were not permitted to live until the 1960's (it was a company town until the mill sold out) and that included Greeks and Italians because even they weren't "white enough." I get to see people of different races, ethnicity, and religions at work because I teach at a community college about 90 miles from where I live, but there is no diversity to speak of in the town where I live.
     
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  10. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'd give my critique as I would any other, and suggest ways to improve it without telling them that I think they're projecting far too much onto their MC. Then if they don't take the advice, I leave it be. It's not my story -

    1. I have no authority to make them change it

    2. Mine is also just an opinion and not absolutely right

    3. again, not my story - it's no skin off my teeth, is it? Not me who'll be embarrassed, not my work getting screwed up, not my name attached to it. I've tried to help, but if they don't listen, then well, what do I care? It's not mine.

    I say this as someone who's actually doing that. I know one writer whose excuse is always, "Well that's just the way my character is. That's her voice, so I'm not sure what I can do about that. Not everyone will like my character and that's fine."

    To that, I say, "Well, good luck!" :superagree:

    ETA: However if you're the one finding it hard to accept critique because you've over-identified with your MC and you're wanting advice to overcome it - then just remind yourself: tell a good story. If the over-identification is so obvious that it's hindering the story, then step back and do something about it for the sake of the story. In the end, as I said in point #3 above - not the critic's work but it is your work. Do you really want this sorta flaw attached to your name? Ruin all the good and hard work you've done on it? I think it's just like taking any kind of critique, really. If you think the critique has a point, you can see there's an issue, you'd be dumb to ignore it, regardless of how personal the critique feels. (not calling you personally dumb - but it would be pretty unwise, right?)
     
    Last edited: Dec 10, 2015
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  11. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I had a great piece of advice given to me when I submitted my very first draft to my very first beta. He is a writer himself, and somebody whom I knew of, but had not (yet) met.

    When he told me he had trouble believing a particular incident in my story (which is not based on my own personality, but has elements of my life in it) my defensive response was: But that incident actually DID happen—to me!

    He replied: "Well maybe it did, but you need to make me believe it."

    I guess I'd thought that because the incident was actually 'real' that it would stand up to scrutiny if I just put it into my story. It didn't. And I revised it.

    Every author needs to eventually grasp that it doesn't matter how personal, or political, or sensitive an incident or character is in real life. The only thing that matters is how it appears to the reader in the story as you've written it.

    As the guy said to me later on, "You're not going to be standing by every reader's shoulder explaining how and why this event actually happened. The story has to stand on its own."

    I think it's natural for writers to get defensive about their work—especially when it's first analyzed by another person. I know I do. It's my BABY. How DARE you...! However, that doesn't mean I don't take on board what the critique-givers have said. And I'm happy to report that in nearly ALL cases I have actually tweaked my story to include their concerns. I haven't changed the story itself. What I've tried to do is make it more believable. If people say something doesn't make sense to them, or they don't think a character's behaviour reflects what I wanted it to reflect, I try to find out why, and cover that gap. It's really as simple as that, in most cases.

    However, it does require the ability to admit, as an author, that you're never perfect, and never above improvement. You want a certain effect in a reader, then you have to work hard to create it. Just because something lives in your imagination doesn't mean it's automatically going to appear the way you imagined it to your readers.
     
    Last edited: Jun 23, 2016
  12. LostThePlot
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    LostThePlot Contributing Member

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    I don't think it's a bad thing for authors to heavily identify with particular characters; the bad thing is letting that take precedence over a good character. Hopefully anyone who reads your work will be invested in the characters and if you as a writer aren't then that's a sign of bigger problems. It's all about finding the middle road. You need to be open to criticism and not too precious about your work but do need to care about your characters enough to write them well and make them feel alive. You should be listening to what people say but you do still need to be writing the story you care about.
     
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  13. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    It's OK to identify with your MC, but you've got to remember that once your book is out there, readers are free to praise/diss your MC as much as they want. You can't really help that, nor can you do anything to stop that. All you can do is make that MC and his/her adventure realistic enough within the context of the setting and story so your readers will at least give a damned.
     
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  14. LostThePlot
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    LostThePlot Contributing Member

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    I think that's a good point. If you do write exclusively for yourself (nothing wrong with that) then it doesn't matter, but assuming you want people to ever see your work then you need to back off enough to let other people identify with your characters too. A character you are too close to is probably one that other people won't understand easily.
     
  15. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    I am guilty of being attached to my characters, but I think others might enjoy the craziness I put them through. :p
    I write for who ever, written well is another matter entirely. :D
     
  16. Kallisto
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    Kallisto Active Member

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    I used to, but then it started getting in the way of good feedback and improvement. Now, I have a lot of disconnect from my characters and see them from a more objective view point. So long as critiques still compliment on strong characters, I'm going to keep doing it.

    However, this is what works for me. I definitely know that it took a lot for me to learn to disconnect and still write strong characters. (Lots of feedback, most of it negative). I don't expect it to work for everyone.
     
  17. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I have a friend (a published novelist) who writes from his own POV so strongly that his (fictional) main character is almost indistinguishable from himself. Many things that have happened to this writer find their way into the book as events that happen to the character.

    This writer is an extremely colourful guy, so this autobiographical approach works a treat. His main character (thinly disguised) never puts a foot wrong in terms of believability. The writer told me his character always does what he himself would do in any given situation, and his character is living out his own personal fantasies.

    His stories are rich with detail, humour and authentic dialogue, and he has the ability to convey other characters in a way that makes them unforgettable. But most of these minor characters are his real friends and family (names changed)—who so far are flattered to be included, and are gung-ho with the projects. In essence, he's gathering real people and relationships, then transporting them—intact—into fictional settings. This method works for him, and I can't fault his results.

    However, I do doubt he will ever be able to write from the POV of somebody else. He can filter what he 'thinks' somebody else is thinking or feeling, but he seems unable to actually step into their shoes and role-play from their perspective. This will limit him as a writer, and will ensure that his same main character will move from book to book, virtually unchanged. I don't know if this is a good thing or not. So far it is, but it will be interesting to watch in future.
     
    Last edited: Jan 11, 2016
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  18. KhalieLa
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    KhalieLa It's not a lie, it's fiction. Contributor

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    What about strongly identifying with a side character?
    I wrote a scene a couple of days ago that reduced me to tears.

    The MC, Klara, and the side character, Jondir, are standing together looking over what was a battlefield during a civil war in the recent past. Klara doesn't know it is the sight of a battle and questions why there is a monument on the site. Jondir recounts the battle (which has bearing on the story going forward) and his role in it. Thankfully, I have never witnessed the devastation that comes from war, but as I saw through Jondir eyes and felt his emotions, I cried.

    I am leery of turning this over for critique, simply because I am emotionally attached to the scene, even if I don't understand why. This book won't be up for critique for several months yet, so I'm hoping that time away from the scene will make it less uncomfortable.

    Anyone else encounter this? And if so, how did you handle it?
     
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  19. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Oh yes, absolutely. One of my characters says something that I wish (so much) that I'd been able to say to another person, many many years ago. It still hurts to think of the opportunity that won't come again to me. I just wrote that bit honestly—and it's in another context—but I would be upset if people criticised it .
     
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  20. Feo Takahari
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    Feo Takahari Active Member

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    When there's a certain amount of raw pain in a scene, beta readers tend to notice and react. I wrote a character once who started out mirroring myself as a young age, then failed to recover from any of my issues, pushed away everyone who tried to help her, and grew more and more unstable. When I got to the scene where she died, beta readers still advised how to improve it, but none of them criticized the emotion itself. It was more about how to better show that emotion to readers.
     
  21. AStoryTeller
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    AStoryTeller New Member

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    How do I not attach myself to someone I have created? As a writer, you have given birth to your own wonderful, literary baby. And if you are not relating to him/her as yourself, then it is near impossible (for me at least) to not, in a way, adopt this character. And if this is the case, how do you give genuine critique to the created, and not the creator?

    Well, how do you give critique to your friend or a loved one? Truthfully and with a little sugar. My husband and I used to have this kind of game, 2 good, 1 bad. Example: my husband is on his phone too much and not paying attention to me or our son. "Hey, I love that you are great staying in contact with our friends back home, it shows dedication. But lately, it seems you've been on your phone so much that Jonah and I are being neglected. You are a great dad and husband when you give us some quality time."

    I know it may seem a little silly, but it goes a long way when you can pick focus on the good and bring up the harder stuff amongst it. It is not being soft on the person; it is being productive and a helpful review.
     
  22. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I think it's odd if a person can only understand/empathise with somebody like them. It's kind of our job as authors to get in the heads of people unlike us.
     
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  23. Lifeline
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    Lifeline The Dark - not in Wonderland Supporter Contributor

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    It will not go away. If anything it gets stronger the more you write your MCs. In my own writing I tend to be real leery of cheating the reader out of an experience. i.e. when a character experiences something which changes the way he thinks, I want the reader to feel every facet of it. As these kind of scenes accumulate in the course of a novel the MC gets more and more complex, the present more immediate - because I have written the past of my MC with his eyes.

    Just shoulder through. Even these bits need to be critiqued, but it won't be pleasant if readers actually find something to grip about. *hug*. Cry, rage, and calm down again. Courage, lady!
     
  24. Raven484
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    Raven484 Contributing Member

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    My main characters and main protagonist are always direct reflection of myself. All minor characters I have based on friends and enemies. I have never just made up a character profile from scratch. Each character becomes the embodiment of what I feel my friend's personality is? When I write, I actually see them in my head. Same with what I consider my enemies.
    So far I have had likeable characters. Some have critiqued my main negatively, which probably doesn't say much for myself. But my bad guys shine. I love getting dark with them. When I bring them out, I almost feel dirty with the sinister things I can do with them. My wife said I was the nicest evil man that she has ever met. I just give her a wink and ask her not to tell anyone.
     
  25. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    I identify with a lot of my characters at some level and some I get a little more defensive over than others, but the protag isn't one of those - mostly because she's the character I work the most on fine tuning. I worry about her coming across right or not standing out, so while I don't consider her basic personality to be negotiable, she's someone I'm always working on anyway.

    I think people get defensive over a lot of things - some more than others - but I'm guilty of getting defensive over my setting so whatever. I'm not sure there's ever a way to avoid hurting everyone's feelings. Although I do usually try to critique from the point of view of helping them write the book they want to write effectively, even if it's not my speed. I know that's why I get defensive over my setting - I don't want a future that looks overly techy, so I refuse to construct one that violates the base limits I've set, and I also refuse to stop writing the book in the future and set it in the present (these are both critiques I've received). So, in that sense, I do have some lines I won't cross to please people and personally I think that's fine and healthy. But there's also a lot to be said for learning to take critique gracefully if it's offered properly - that's a skill in itself, and if people refuse to develop it over time, that's not my fault.
     

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