Thursday, June 08, 2006

I don't care if your protagonist is thin

We all know that when Goldilocks got to the house in the woods, she was hungry and found three bowls of porridge. One was too hot, one was too cold, and one was just right.

Then she went to sit down in a chair. The first was too big, the second too big as well, but the third was just right.

Although when she sat down, she broke the little chair because obviously, she was lying to herself about her weight and was too heavy for it. Either that, or it was one crappy carpenter, but I don’t think the average woodworker would want to risk pissing off a bear.

Then it was beds, and this time it was too hard, too soft and finally, just right.

Until the bears came home. Then it didn’t matter how “just right” that bed was. Goldilocks got the hell out of there and never went back.

Goldilocks was one seriously fussy little girl.

Either that, or I’m really easy.

Now, some of you know about my tumultuous life in my early years, and I’m not going to bore anyone with a rehash of the details I have shared here in the past. I mention it only because when I was a teenager, I needed something to put my back up against. Some people, when their life is out of control and they haven’t really got an anchor, they go wild. Sex, drugs, crime, whatever. Full-scale rebellion.

I went to church. I was very black and white, morally. There was nothing grey. I even went for a number of years without (gasp! I can’t believe I’m confessing this) listening to secular music.

Now, I’m glad that for a period of time in my life, I was sheltered. Because the time I spent first as student then staff member at a Christian school, was the time my life was literally turned upside down. I was still working there the last time I saw my dad. That would be 11.5 years ago. Suffice it to say that some familial bombshells dropped during that time, and I spent quite a while being pretty confused.

Times like that, a lot of people either go off the edge and turn to anything to numb the pain or look for anchors, absolutes. Anything to keep you from feeling completely adrift.

Didn’t help that much. Oh, I mean, it probably saved my life. I had responsibilities, expectations on me, I couldn’t just lose myself in a bottle or take my problems away with a needle. So, on the one hand, it likely saved me from myself. On the other, I needed some serious mental readjustment when I started to really put my life together, without a crutch.

I’m not calling God a crutch. I’m saying, for the record, that until I left that school I never really started to deal with my problems.

I remember one of the staff people, who told me that I’d “had enough time to deal with my little trauma and it was time to move on.” Whenever I think of that person and some of the completely heartless things I saw that person do, I so badly want to say two words to them. And they’re not ‘bless you’. Well, ‘you’ might be one of them.

There was a good stretch of time between leaving that life and getting married, and even my husband says I’m not the same person he first met.

I consider it a good thing. I mean, sure I’m still opinionated. But I’m more open-minded than I ever was before. I know people who won’t touch a book written by one of those alternative lifestyle people who’re defying God’s laws. I couldn’t care less. We’re all people, right? If you want to put a religious spin on it, all sinners. So what do I care who you sleep with? I don’t. Maybe if you’re a close friend and I know the person’s a jerk and I don’t want to see you get hurt I might have something to say, but beyond that? None of my business,

And I don’t care if you talk like a trucker, because believe me, some of the most “sweet as pie” to your face people I’ve known – like the staff member I referred to - carry the biggest, sharpest knives and use them regularly. I’ve been hurt by a lot of people over the years – sadly, never worse than by some of the devoutly religious people I know who play at nicey nice images. (This isn’t true of all religious people. I’m not saying that. I’m just talking about my experience with some of them.)

I am so not about some fucking put on fake smile coupled with a programmed mantra about how I’ve got all the answers. But you know what? Need help? I’m hear to listen, at least. I can’t promise answers, but I care about people. Having a bad year? Come vent. Need a shoulder? No problem.

What I’m not here to do is make judgments.

Two years ago, I wasn’t watching The Wire. I wasn’t reading anything other than British police procedurals (and classics like Jane Eyre). I was staying in my comfort zone.

And then I started writing.

I had all these inhibitions. No sex. No swearing. Yeah, can you believe it? Just two measly years ago…

One of the best things about writing was that, in order to learn, I felt I needed to branch out more. I made a deliberate effort to explore new books. PI books. Hard-boiled. I had a method to my research, almost always going off author referrals from authors I admired. And it just grew from there.

And I’m so glad that I explored new terrain. Two years ago, a story like Fucked Again wasn’t in me. For one, the technical writing ability needed some refinement. Some serious, serious polish. Still does, in fact. Maybe I’ll whine about book edits tomorrow…

And for two, I didn’t have it in me to put myself into that kind of character’s head. I lacked the skill, the experience, the willingness to go there. Then I started reading Val McDermid and she taught me so much. Showed me how much I was limiting myself.

Now, where is all this coming from, you ask? Well, nitpicking over books.

I mean, we all have our likes and dislikes. We’re all more inclined to certain preferences. We have different interests.

But some of the reasons I’ve seen mentioned recently – reasons people give for not reading books – make me sad.

Part of me has that side that wants to please everyone, but then there’s the wee bit of reason in my head that knows that you can’t and that trying to do so will just make you feel like a fraud, while you hide parts of yourself from some people so they don’t get offended.

I mean, I don’t swear much around my church friends. That’s a respect thing. But it isn’t like I pretend I never swear. That’s what I mean by hiding. Someone said to me that they were sure all those gays ever thought about was sex. I was so mad I pointed out as a 35-year-old female, that’s all I ever thought about as well. I mean, the ignorance and prejudice…

I find most prejudices tend to be driven by fear. What we don’t know, or understand, we’re more intimidated by. If we don’t understand it, we can’t control it, and it might be a threat to us.

I suppose that’s why, for me, I can’t maintain a list of reasons I won’t read a book. There’s been a big discussion about this on a forum. No tattoos. No swearing. No designer clothes. No little animals being hurt. No computer hackers. No slender characters. No tall women. No serial killer books. No politics.

No no no no no.

It’s enough to make me cry, it reminds me of the years I spent under the legalistic thumb of some people.

In response to it all, I posted this:

Married, divorced, gay, straight, a drinker, a teetotaler, someone who swears continuously, tattoos, no tattoos, I don't care.

All that matters to me is that the character reads real, is believable, and engages me in such a way that I want to spend time with them.

16, 17 months ago, when I first read Simon Kernick's The Business of Dying, I felt so guilty for liking someone that was, well, wrong. But that’s the beauty of it – Simon created a character that did things that I would never normally condone, yet he made the protagonist real and sympathetic enough for me to want more of him. The follow-up, A Good Day To Die, is one of my all-time favourite reads. Ever.

We all, as readers, bring our personality, world views and tastes to the reading experience. Some of us can believe certain characters more easily than others.

The only thing I know for certain is that I won't make every reader happy. But with such a range of authors and books out there, isn't the great thing that there's something for everyone?

You know what? I honestly think that, a few years ago, I was afraid of what I could be if I didn’t stay in control. I could see a lot of things in me I didn’t like. Hatred. Resentment. Anger. I used to think I was such a good person, but the older I got, the more aware I became of my own shortcomings.

I was afraid that if I spent time around some people without those moral restraints, I might lose track of mine. I guess I still wanted everyone to fit into black or white boxes, to be “good” or “bad”. When I look back on my life, I think it’s because the people I thought of as good for many years turned out to be some of the most destructive forces in my life and they hurt me the worst. Wouldn’t it be nice if, upon meeting someone, you could see if they were listening to their good angel or bad angel, and know the kind of friend they would –or would not-be?

Life doesn’t work that way, and one of the things that makes a beautiful friendship so wonderful is that you’ve discovered a kindred spirit.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

If I judged people by what they wrote, I would have missed out on meeting some fantastic people. I also would have missed out on some fantastic books.

As much as I know the British police procedurals will always be a security blanket for me, my comfort zone, where I run to when things are rough and I need a book fix to go with my chocolate, I also know that there are so many books outside of that limited scope that have given me hours of reading pleasure.

But these long lists of ready-made reasons… Look, I’m not knocking procedural, technical frustrations that make a reader put down a book. Oh, sure, I notice them on TV shows all the time, but seldom do I stop watching.

For some reason, a lot of people seem to be more forgiving of TV than books.

And what makes me sad is that I think of this forum as a place where booklovers come together to talk about their passion – BOOKS!

Yet I’ve also seen people jumped on because they aren’t reading the “right” things that others like. Shouldn’t we just be happy people are reading? And maybe liking a “lesser” book in our eyes is just the beginning of a journey that gets them reading other great books we do personally enjoy?

I just don’t get it.

Personally, I’m thankful. For the journey that brought me to this point, where I could be open-minded enough to venture into new terrain, to discover wonderful people with whom I have common bonds, to discover new books that have expanded my reading scope.

And can I just say that I find it incredibly odd that some have posted complaints about not liking negative characters…but, er, well, I guess it’s okay for them to complain?

Don’t get me wrong. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. It’s just that, as a writer, I can’t hear a lot of this stuff. Because it’s persuaded me that there will always be someone who won’t like Lara, just because she has auburn hair, or Tymen because he wears a suit, or Jimmy because he’s scruffy…

If I stopped to think about it, I’d go mad. I’m just glad that the inhibitions I had a few years ago haven’t stopped me, because if I’d given in to my pet peeves and prejudices, I would have missed some fantastic books along the way.

Because some days, I like sleeping in a King Size bed alone and stretching out. And some days, I like sleeping on a harder bed, because my back is bothering me. And some days, curling up in a big, oversized chair, with a blanket and a book, is far better than sitting stiffly in one that's just my size.

I'm not Goldilocks. Not inclined to think one size fits all, or that it should fit all.



JT Ellison said...

My only real quibble with a book is the same as with horror films. "Oh, there's a man with an ax, running through the woods, who has killed all my friends. I better take off my shirt and run away."

Sandra Ruttan said...

Surely taking off the shirt is only appropriate when the character is a fantastic-looking man with 6-pack abs, to keep the female viewers who'd otherwise be hiding their eyes from all the gore, watching?

M. G. Tarquini said...

I was reading a flash someplace that had somebody wandering around in a filmy nightgown wondering what the noise downstairs was. This went on for a while, her wandering and worrying. After a while she found the thing that worried her. An ugly guy who seemed ethereal, likely a ghost. Does the heroine, finally, get her ass in gear and run? Call 911? No, she stands there like a captive from a bad Victorian novel, clutching that filmy nightgown while we all wait for the inevitable 'scary ending.'

It had me cheering for the ghost.

So - I won't read idiot protags unless the idiocy is purposeful and the author has a clue what they're doing.

Andrea at Lochthyme said...

Thank you. And I thought it was only me. Reading all those posts about how they won't read a book cause of the swearing, tatoos, designer clothing, blah blah blah, I just kept shaking my head. I personally will read anything and everything. If it's got a story I like I read it. I go from cozy to noir. Doesn't matter to me. If a book gets people to read it's a good book(look at Harry got tons of people who never picked up books to read...probably true of the Da Vinci Code too). People are missing out on some awesome books if they have a whole list of what they won't read! Some people I think roll their eyes at what I read..I'll go from Victoria Laurie (cozy cozy cozy) to Ken Bruen. And I have Ian Rankin next to Arturo Perez-Reverte next to Dorothy Gilman next to Barry Eisler next to Alice Kimberly next to Agatha Christie next to well you get the picture. I'm the same way with my music.

angie said...

There's plenty I don't read, but not much I WON'T read. Honestly, most chick-lit, romance, hard sci-fi, and commercial fic. leave me bored so these genres are not at the head of my TBR list. Still, if the storyline's interesting & I can dig the characteres, then I'm usually down for just about anything. I'm all about internal honesty with books - if the novel is honest & true to itself, I can forgive a lot.

Having said that, there ARE some books that I've abandoned part way through. Life's short, dammit. I don't have tons of extra time to spend reading someone else's stuff - especially if it's not kicking my ass. I can handle some fuck-ups with the reality factor if the story and characters are hitting on all cylinders. I'm with Mindy when it comes to idiotic protags - esp. if said protag is a permanent resident of cliche-ville. There are plenty of readers who are just fine with this, but I can't do it. It's a generally a bad sign if I can feel my already challenged I.Q. dropping.

And who freakin' cares if somebody doesn't like a book, for whatever reason? If I stopped to think about who might be turned off or offended or even bored with my writing, I'd never turn on the computer or pick up a pen again. And THAT'S just dumb.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

The only thing that really drives me to screaming girls...Thank the Lord, I can turn the channel or close the book! :-)

Vincent said...

Rather than say what I tend to avoid, I'll say instead that I actively try to seek out books that, to me at any rate, seem fresh and original. Though that might mean quality, conventional fair get over-looked.

Given my tendency has always been toward being a jack-of-all-trades, from the writing point of view I'm happy to stuff a bit of everything into my books. I don't like soap operas, but I've put elements of soap opera into my book. Horror? Cheap scares and gore? Absolutely. Action, adventure, comedy, romance, political pot-boiler, thriller, whodunnit and melancholic musings on the mysteries of death? Why not? Heck, I'll even throw in a procedural police murder mystery too, but I'll do it backwards.

Okay, dabbing your paintbrush in every colour in the genre palette doesn't suit every book, but as a writer I think you definitely want as many literary colours as possible to choose from. Then you can write two-tone noir one day and epic fantasy rainbows the next (provided you're into that sort of thing).

JamesO said...

A lot of it comes down to what you want from a book. If you want to be entertained but not taxed intellectually, then you'll probably enjoy The DaVinci Code. If you want something familiar, you'll stick with the works of an author you like, or with a genre you like. And that's fine, as long as your reading.

I can't remember the exact figure but there's something staggering like 200,000 titles published every year in the English language. It's impossible to read everything, even if all you ever do is read. Most of us have to eat and sleep a bit as well, so we have to be choosy.

My father is forever pressing strange books on me - things I'd never pick up myself (and, it has to be said, I do the same to him.) The difference between us is that he can read a book in a day and I take more like a week, sometimes considerably longer if I'm doing other things. So my shelves are full of things I mean to get around to reading some day, but probably never will.

I agree it's a bit daft to say you don't like a book because the character has a tattoo, or sniffs loudly in restaurants, but sometimes we have to resort to silly little prejudices just to avoid drowing in a sea of words. Even if it does mean we miss some gems.

S. W. Vaughn said...

My name is S. W. and I have a problem. I like books. Generally, if a book contains words, and it is accessible to me, I will read it. Even if it's the most horrible dreck I've ever seen.

Lately I have cured myself somewhat of the compulsive need to keep reading a bad book, just to see if it gets better. Because I've discovered that generally, it won't. But I still will at least start reading and give it a chance.

I'm with you, Sandra. If the characters engage me, I'll keep going.

I have only thrown one book across the room in fury and disgust after finishing it.

And congrats on Killer Year! :-)

Trace said...

Another excellent post, Sandra. I'm reading all kinds of stuff right now, from horror to erotica.

Cornelia Read said...

This is such a great post, Sandra, and I loved what you wrote on That Forum, too.

I like the idea of someone with a tattoo who sniffs in restaurants. And "I better take off my shirt and run away," too.

YAY KILLER YEAR!!!!! Can I be an honorary big sister?