I read a lot. I also read reviews, though I tend to read reviews after I have read a book myself. Why? Well, I used to rely on reviews to pick books, but now I tend to rely on a trusted few (and my own gut) to pick and choose. Even so, my interest in reviews never completely faded, so I tend to set time aside after I finish reading to skim book reviews.
One of the reasons I stopped reading book reviews was the obsession with tearing characters apart.
Don’t get me wrong. Characters are so, so important in fiction. However, I think many have forgotten that characters are supposed to reflect real-life people. They aren’t supposed to be perfect. They shouldn’t do things you agree with on every page. They will make mistakes, even mistakes that seem ridiculous to you.
Staying on the path of “when characters make mistakes that seem ridiculous to you”: As the reader, you might know more than the character. Or you might understand the tropes of your genre, so you expect certain things to happen (ex. a best friend’s betrayal, a love triangle admission, a mentor figure’s sudden death). However, to that character, they live in a world that doesn’t come with trope warnings (just like we don’t). So when their best friend betrays them and they’re shocked (and you’re not), I don’t think it’s fair to call that character stupid or naïve or etc. Even with dozens of clues, that character loves their best friend. They trust their best friend. As humans, we often lie to ourselves when the truth is looking us in the face. We make mistakes.
As much as characters are designed to entertain, they are also designed to be honest, ugly, thought provoking, loving, twisted, and more. In fact, if you design a character really well, they will be all of those things—sometimes in one scene.
As an example, I recently finished Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, and holy hell, I love it. I thought the voice was so honest, even though Dumplin has some seriously shallow thoughts. This was the main complaint I saw in reviews. Many called her hypocritical and hard to cheer on. And guess what? Of course she’s hypocritical. Of course she’s hard to cheer on sometimes. And that’s what made her believable. Dumplin’ is a teenage girl struggling with how the world judges her weight. Between that and the recent death of her beloved aunt, her contemptuous relationship with her mother, and her first (confusing) summer fling, I completely understood and sympathized with Dumplin’s emotional struggles. Does that mean I agreed with everything she did and said in every scene? Hell no! But I don’t have to agree with a character in every scene to love them in the end.
How many times has your sister annoyed you, bothered you, done something you thought was incredibly thoughtless? How about your parents? Your grandparents? Your best friends? But you still love them in the end. You give them second chances. You let go of the idea that everyone in your life must take your advice to heart. You understand everyone lives their own life their own way, and that sometimes you won’t agree with it, but that no one needs your approval. In fact, how many times have you done something that wasn’t perfect? How many times have you done something out of character? I know I’ve disappointed myself before. I still do. I’m human. I have moments of selfishness, of jealousy, of anger, of irrational depression. But does that make me worth tearing apart? I would hope not.
I expect characters to disappoint me at some point. I try to sympathize with flaws, but also understand that some flaws are going to be out of my realm. I cheer them on when they’re good and hope they redeem themselves when they’re bad. (And sometimes, I enjoy a good story where a character is never redeemed.) All I ask for is consistency—a sense that, no matter what the character does or believes, I understand them in that moment, even in the moments where they aren’t quite themselves. I need to believe they are real, and if I can believe that, I will more than likely enjoy the journey.
In the end, I want to enjoy the story—and sometimes, stories are told by those you might not understand. Maybe even by someone you would hate. But that doesn’t automatically mean the story is unlikeable.
Let’s be a little kinder to characters, especially character flaws.
We all have them.