Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How readers perceive your characters

Paula looks at two different opinions about her characters:
Person A said, “She was flexible and understanding. She knew her priorities but was willing to adapt. She's the caring type, who listens, evaluates and is willing to work things out.”
Person B said, “She seems a weak character who makes reactive decisions instead of being assertive.”
They were, in fact, describing the same character. I think this shows (a) how people can interpret characteristics in different ways and (b) how personal preferences may come into play when people assess your characters.
It also shows that what one person considers as strengths, another person may consider as weaknesses.
Is the character displaying weakness when she is willing to listen, evaluate, and work things out? If that is true, then assertiveness would surely mean she say says what she thinks and feels, and isn’t willing to compromise.
On the whole, I prefer my heroine to have an inner strength that comes into play when she has decisions to make. I want her to think about those decisions and yes, react to the other person’s feelings, rather than thinking only about herself.
However, this begs the question: Are reactive decisions a sign of weakness – and, by the same token, is assertiveness a sign of strength?
I welcome your views!


  1. I think the answer depends on how you view the character. Some people will see reactive decisions as weak. Others will see it as a strength to be able to adapt. Same with the other--assertiveness could be a sign of strength, or it could be a weakness if you act first and think later.

  2. There are two types of characters:
    One thinks and then acts.
    The other acts and then thinks.
    Neither is better than the other. Just different.

  3. Exactly - but I still don't understand why reactive decisions can be considered as weak. Surely they show that the heroine cares enough about the hero to 'react' to (i.e. take account of) his feelings too? Why is that a weakness??

  4. I agree, Ana - which is why I think the reader's perspective depends on their own views - which might not necessarily be the same as the writer's!

  5. Slightly connected with this, I saw this as part of a review of a British book today:
    "In the U. S. Tamara would be a simmering character brimming over with resentment toward her sister and parents for truncating her life. She'd be plagued with guilt for wanting her sister's old boyfriend and regretful of her acrimonious relationship with her sister before the accident.

    However, the British version is a kinder, gentler person, who loves her older sister and doesn't begrudge the time Lyddie demands from her. Tamara has come to terms with the accident and what she perceives to be her part in it. She is just a normal young woman trying to live independently while helping her parents with Lyddie's care."

    It's an interesting comparison/contrast of differences between UK and US ideas!

  6. I'm not sure a generalization of UK vs US difference is sound. While there can be some cultural cohesiveness, there can also be a huge range of interpretations.

    It sounds like the review was written by someone British, and the "would be" makes assumptions about Americans--who do not assess and react alike at all.

  7. Readers who want to argue with how a writer defines a character miss the point of a story, IMO. Lose yourself in it or put it down.

  8. Good point, Ana. Generalisations about either American or British attitudes can be reduced to stereotyping.
    That review was written by an American, by the way!!
    I am still trying to decide what my (American) reviewer's comment actually meant about the heroine being reactive and not assertive, as I think she varied between both extremes - which in fact most of us do.

  9. Maybe it's reactive because she's not thinking for herself?

  10. In the story, she definitely thinks for herself, but (like most people, I would suggest) she also reacts to what others might be saying or feeling. My main point really is that making reactive decisions doesn't necessarily imply weakness.