People Have Strange Ways

People handle stress in strange ways.

I know someone who has literal fainting fits when under extreme pressure. I know a couple of people who actually lose the ability to digest food properly, to the point of a doctor asking pointed questions on the ‘are you sure you’re not anorexic’ theme of someone who ate half a chocolate cake for breakfast but is losing weight anyway. I know one person who gets enormously constipated and one who gets nervous diarrhea, neither of which are even slightly helpful. I used to know someone who coped with sudden stresses by dying her hair. I know one person who develops crazy protein cravings (crazy as in ‘walks around muttering about needing a bucket full of meat’ levels of intensity)  and another who sucks down water continuously as if stress can be flushed out via the kidneys.

One of the above people is me. It’s not the chocolate cake one.

Point is, people handle things in non-standard ways sometimes.

So it drives me mad when I hear complaints about ‘weird’ or ‘unrealistic’ characterization choices in fiction because people aren’t responding to grief or stress or fear in a ‘normal’ way. Not everyone copes with pain by sitting down and having a long talk with a Possible Romantic Interest about their Innermost Feels, or getting very angry at someone who died for dying and being really unreasonable and then having a good sob. Sometimes they do, and that’s fine, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’re Loki and respond to being emotionally hurt with ‘You’ll all be sorry when everyone’s DEAD’ and just go completely off the rails. Sometimes they’re Tiffany Aching and go so deep into denial that they need perspective shipped in by broomstick. Sometimes they’re Dean Winchester and I don’t even know where to start with that guy.

You know what’s unrealistic? Sex-fixes-everything. That’s unrealistic. Romance does not cure all ills. Yes, sometimes sex can be reassuring or cathartic or a desperately-needed interlude of not-thinking, but it doesn’t fix you. It doesn’t cure depression or trauma or grief. It is, at best, a comfort, not a cure.

So don’t feel constrained by the tropes when writing a character in pain. They can get angry at the world, they can just BAKE ALL THE THINGS, they can eat or not eat or cry or not cry or go on a mad killing spree. Whatever works for the character. Some people faint when given a shock. Some people punch the messenger. People do what they do, and it’s not always what you-the-reader or you-the-writer would do, but that doesn’t make it an invalid response, as long as it’s consistent with the character, or even inconsistent in a plausible way.

In case anyone wonders why I am so insistent on this, I got a rude feedback message which called me on ‘poor characterization’ on the subject of how a certain character handled a stressful event. And told me smugly how much better my fic would be if I would just make my characters more ‘plausible’, by doing it right like this yahoo says I should. I AM RAGE. I am annoyed by this because not only was the smug condescension incredibly offensive, but because the yahoo in question was advocating a very limited and culturally inappropriate (to the character) set of reactions that would ‘work better’ on the strength that he says so. In case anyone is wondering, ‘it would have been better if you’d written it like this’ is a TERRIBLY RUDE THING TO SAY TO A WRITER. Pointing out that the plot flags a bit two thirds in? Fine. Suggesting perhaps that a character is a bit exaggerated? Sure. Calling me names because I’ve mentioned abortion in a less than totally negative way? Won’t be the first time.

But ‘I could have written your story better than you can, you silly person, benefit from my wise counsel’ or ‘you should have written it the way I like to envision the character because that would be better’? Not cool. If you think Snape should be written as a misunderstood snuggly kitten or that everyone in the history of time and space should universally accept that eighteen is the Right And Correct Age Of Consent In The Face Of All Logic And Reason, fine. YOU write it that way. But don’t tell me to!

I think the point I’m trying to make in my rage-fuddled way is that saying ‘your story suffers from these flaws’ or even ‘your story isn’t very good’ is fine. Ever, ever, ever telling another person that they should write the way you think they should, or what they ‘should’ write or what you ‘expect’ from them? NOT FINE NOT EVER FINE. SQUID OF ANGER.

I need some chocolate and a drink of water.

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4 thoughts on “People Have Strange Ways

  1. Hey, they’re only doing to you what we all do to JK Rowling – we’re all going “I think this story would have been better if….” – and if somebody writes a story in what seems like a wildly implausible way I think one has a right to comment. We’ve all seen stories where characters suffered some dreadful, traumatic experience and were completely unaffected because the author couldn’t be arsed to write them being affected, or where a character has had a total personality transplant between one story and the next (see e.g. Valentine White Crow, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer etc). You of course always write good characterisation and if your character behaves in an unexpected way there will be sound reasons for it, but we can’t say “You’re only allowed to carp at bad writers”, because where do you draw the line?

    Personally, when I’m stressed my mouth breaks out in blisters.

    • I don’t mind criticism – well, I don’t care for it, but I know it’s something you just have to deal with – but that particular form of it just drives me bananas. I don’t write to Rowling and tell her ‘sweetie, just so you know, your story would have been SO MUCH BETTER if you’d just redeemed Draco at the end and your characterization of Neville was just way off, just letting you know so you can fix it or do better next time!’ Criticizing is fine. Condescending is *rude*.

      If they think I did a bad job, they can either do me the courtesy of saying so without the saccharine, or they can go write their own story. I would much rather get feedback telling me I’m a talentless hack than something like ‘well, it was a great effort, but you reeeeaaally should have done this thing and that thing if you wanted it to be perfect, I know you can do better if you try.’ Nothing turns me into a flailing rage-beast like being condescended to – ever since I was tiny, according to my mother. She has lots of stories about me giving grown-ups what for for talking down to me just because I happened to be six!

      Oh, and another thing I do when I’m stressed that I can’t believe I forgot? I get a rash on my ankles. A very itchy one. I’ve never been able to figure out how that works.

  2. Sometimes it can be difficult to interpret the intent of a critique, I think. I mean sure there are those where the intent seems blindingly obvious; they want to ground you into the dirt and their kind words are mere afterthoughts. There are more subtle misunderstandings, though. I worry whenever I give a critique because I have a tendency to overexplain my points. That could come across as condescending when it’s actually my own panic that the author will think I’m taking cheap shots; so I end up waffling in hopes of showing them that I’ve actually thought things through and spent some time on it.

    I also apologise in advance if they find my detailed breakdown to be as much hurtful as it is helpful. I fully appreciate some would see that as patronising. If they’re asking for feedback they should be ready for the truth, right? Then I remember getting my first critique online where I was thrown between more experienced writers, each taking their pound of flesh, and gained nothing from the experience. Thinking of that time again, I find it very difficult not to reassure someone who obviously has a little way to go.

    • Honestly, if you’re thinking about it, you’re probably not one of the people I’m complaining about. The line’s always a little nebulous and depends a bit on things like dialectic differences and personal sensitivities, but by and large what I’m upset about are the people who *are* being condescending, not the ones who take the time to explain their reasoning, which usually says to me ‘hey, this person’s put a lot of thought into this and is trying to help’.

      The number of people who have responded to this with concern, though, illustrates my point as to how incredibly hard to explain this is. The line between helpful criticism and Umbridgish patronization is nigh-impossible to describe, even though it’s a huge leap in intent. Like a good book, you know it when you see it, and it’s very hard to convey to another person what exactly upset you about it.

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