Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Characters who do nothing

The other day I read this novella which had more than half a dozen characters who did nothing. They all had distinct names and family relationships, but they were indistinguishable from each other. If they spoke at all, they said the same thing, in exactly the same way. None of them advanced the plot, all they ever did was provide the backdrop against which the story was enacted. And yet, they were there, and I had spent precious minutes trying to get them sorted out.

How can I possibly critique the story without running the risk of losing a friend?
drabble is a story told in exactly 100 words.

I am also over at Burrowers, Books & Balderdash talking about lessons we can draw from children's books on creating memorable characters.


Deb and Barbara said...

Actually, I think this is exactly the kind of critique you can (and need to) give a friend without hurting them. It's one of those writing traps that almost every inexperienced writer falls into. They don't realize they're doing it until someone points it out.

I think keep it simple:tell it like you drabbled it, (but without the loss of precious minutes part!). Maybe suggest she roll them all of them into ONE character and that this character needs to advance the plot somehow as well. (And begin and end with a positive critique.)

Good luck! And let us know how it turns out.
The Middle Ages

Margot Kinberg said...

Rayna - I have to agree with Deb and Barbara; it's important to let your friend know that characters who don't advance the plot can detract from it. But you can do it in a supportive way.

For instance, you could tell her that the plot's intriguing, and she can move it along even more with fewer characters. In other words, point out what really works for you in the novella, and that those things can be even stronger with fewer and stronger characters.

kmckendry said...

I agree that you must tell your friend, but it is hard to give critical advice to writers who are friends or relatives. I agreed to crit my mother-in-law's book. Yikes. Instead of overwhelming her with negativity I try to give her ideas on how to fix pieces at a time

Tina said...

That's a tough one. Ditto what they said. And maybe you could ask her to critique something you're working on and make it a "buddy-up" sort of process instead of one sided. Please let us know how it goes!

Anonymous said...

You have to tell them. I would appreciate it if someone told me that so I could make adjustments and edits.

Carolyn Abiad said...

I feel like an echo, but I need to cast the vote here in support of the others. You are being the good friend when you point out the problems and possible remedies. Just find a tactful way to do it. They did ask for your help afterall.

Rayna M. Iyer said...

@ Barbara - I should tell her, shouldn't I? Though a lot more diplomatically. Except, I am not sure she really wants the truth- I think she sent it to me more because she wanted me to tell her how brilliant she was (she doesn't know I write, only that I read).
But I would be untrue to myself, and perhaps doing her an injustice if I don't.

She is a good friend. *sigh*
And SHE studied literature at the Graduate level AND is a professional writer :-(
@ Margot - I do think she had that many people because Indian families are huge, but ....
Or if she does have to have all those characters, she could perhaps make most of them backdrops, and have only the main ones interact. It now reads like Huey, Duey and Lewis.

@ kmckendry - oops. How did you get talked into reading your mother's book? Must be one of the toughest things you did/ do.

@ Tina - not that, never. I have great people I can go to- people who know what they are talking about and who are not scared to tell me what they feel I should be told.

@ Stephen - if only I could be sure that she really wants my honest opinion, and not just praise. Hard.

@ Carolyn - maybe instead of writing, I can take the easy way out and give her feedback over the phone. That way, if I feel she doesn't really want to hear what I think, I can change what I intend saying.

Talli Roland said...

Funnily enough, I wrote about something like this today! More on reviews, though. I reckon if it can be fixed -- i.e., if it's just at the critquing phase -- it's okay to give your feedback constructively. But if it's already published, it becomes a lot more difficult.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That's tough! I'd talk to the author first.

sue said...

Rayna, I think you need to be as honest as possible. If she wants to improve she may initially be hurt, but eventually grateful, but also partly so you're not misquoted to others.

Just because she studied at Graduate level and is a professional writer doesn't automatically mean she's always good. Think of the teachers and psychologists (as well as many other professions) who have impressive quals - some of who still have their training wheels on for years.

I wonder if she'd have asked you if she knew you're a writer?

It's a tricky one. All the best.

Hart Johnson said...

You can do this! You've gotten some great advice already, but I think it is definitely better to give the truth of it. I think for people who may not be prepared for real criticism going with the sandwich approach is nice: compliment, criticism, compliment. And that is a relatively easy fix... just say you got a little bogged down and ask her to consider combining a couple and drop anybody who only has a single function.

Mary Vaughn said...

Rayna, You say she thinks of you only as a reader so perhaps you could approach from the angle of what you like to read in a story.
Repeating what the others say, stress the positive.
Best to you and your friend.

Jemi Fraser said...

That's tough. Can you maybe suggest combining secondary characters into one character to make it easier on the reader??? Good luck with it!

Lydia K said...

Ooh, that's a tough one. If she didn't want constructive crits, I'm not sure if you should give it. You could give tepid praise, which might clue her into your dissatisfaction, and if she wants details, then you could dish. (Feedback sandwich, of course, positive, negative, positive).
That is the very passive-aggressive way to go, which may or may not work with your style.

Clarissa Draper said...

I think you need to be honest. I think if she's a true friend, she'll see that you're trying to help her. Better to hear it from you than strangers that won't worry about hurting her feelings.

slommler said...

You are in a difficult spot for sure. But I have found, as I get older, that most people don't want to know the truth...sadly! They just want some pleasant version of it. Rose-colored glasses and all that!!
Good luck!

Rayna M. Iyer said...

@ Talli - reviews are different and much more complicated. You don't want to mislead readers, but don't really want to hurt the writer either. This is much easier.

@ Alex - exactly what I am gathering courage to do.

@ Sue - our relationship has always been one of she being the writer, and me merely a reader. But I guess I have to be true to myself, even at the risk of not exactly giving her what she wants.

@ Hart - sandwich approach is what I guess I will take. Or maybe tell her that as I reader, I look for certain things, and leave it to her to draw conclusions.

@ Mary - that is the best approach, I guess. Tell her what I like as a reader, and let her decide for herself.

@ Jemi - I will. After all, I need to be honest with myself.

@ Lydia - it is not really my style, but I do pride myself on my honesty, so I have to do it, whether I like it or not :-(

@ Clarissa - thus spake the expert!!! Maybe I should pass her onto you.

@ SueAnn - I do wish people wouldn't ask you for your comments unless they really want it. But they do :-(

Dorte H said...

And I also agree with Deb and Barbara!

An hour ago, my daughter read the first few chapters of my new manuscript. She liked the plot, but she told me I would have to make the protagonist more colourful. She was afraid of hurting me, yet she did tell me, and I know she is right. Plot is never enough; if readers don´t get to know our characters, they won´t follow them through 2-300 pages.

Jen Chandler said...

To risk sounding like an echo, I'm going to agree with all the other comments. Tell her, gently of course, but honestly. Be honest to her and to yourself. This isn't easy, and I'm sorry. Focus on the positive; that usually helps buffer a negative critique.

Best of luck!

Patricia Stoltey said...

Critiquing a story is an art that I try to teach writers when I start up new critique groups.

They learn that all comments are suggestions from that critiquer's point of view, that all critiques must point out what's good as well as what's not so good, and that critiques must honor the author's voice and not try to rewrite the story as the critiquer would have written it.

It helps, of course, to have a critique group with lots of opinions, because that mirrors the real life world of readers. Very few writers can please everyone.

Rayna M. Iyer said...

@ Dorte - I am mustering up courage to do just that.
And it is so good that you have such a great relationship with your daughter.

@ Jen - yup, gathering up courage to do that- I do owe it to myself to be honest.

@ Patricia - that is great advice. Yes, every reader is differenent, as it every writer, so it is best to focus on what you think, without belabouring the point.

Rayna M. Iyer said...

I compared her story to a Brooker Nominee, so I hope she takes it in the right spirit.

KjM said...

Well down for being able to provide the right kind of critique. A tough task, indeed.

Accepting it is not easy, but your friend is a professional and, as such, should have had to deal with a certain level of it by now.

I hope all continues well between you both.

Rayna M. Iyer said...

@ KjM- oh yes, the fears were not justified. She took it really well. Am I pleased.


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