Blake Snyder’s classic advice to “Save the Cat” came forcibly to mind this week. I was reading a best seller where the protagonist not only didn’t save the cat, he aimed a kick at it. At this point my dh put down the book and refused to read further.
I carried on reading. The novel is a book club assignment so even if I don’t like it, I have to read it to justify my opinion. In this case, I came to empathize with the hero—he had a hard life and in the end he did rescue the cat—but I did not identify with him. In other words, the story was entertaining and well-told, but it kept me at a distance.
For some types of novel, that distance is not an issue, but for romance novels, we want the reader to enter into the story, to put herself in the heroine’s shoes and feel every heartbeat with her. Having a heroine who even contemplated kicking a cat could eliminate a large readership.
This little vignette was a good reminder to me to choose story words and actions carefully. What may seem like good characterization to an author– being mean to a stray cat—may offend readers so deeply that they cease to be readers. Snyder’s example was intended to help authors write empathetic and complex characters. In real life, no one is all good or all bad. Unless they are comic book caricatures, even villains will have at least one redeeming feature. They care for their mothers, or they send money to an orphanage, or they rescue a stray kitten.
I had an object lesson on this topic in my WIP. I used the term “idiot.” A beta reader found the word harsh, denoting anger and insulting to both the heroine, who says it, and the hero, to whom it is applied. Such was not my intention. I had used the term the way Georgette Heyer used it, almost as a term of endearment. She also uses “stupid,” and “wretch” in the same way, playfully and with no intent to hurt. Clearly, I’m not as skilled as Ms Heyer in portraying the meaning of the word in this way.
I could argue with my reader, or I could put in a long explanation of how the word “idiot” is intended in this context, but none of that would be helpful. If the word offended one person, it might offend others. Why would I want to annoy readers when I could avoid the issue by re-writing the sentence? I’m not suggesting that writers should water down their prose to be as bland as a blanc-mange but I do recommend paying attention to possible misinterpretations.
English is a living language and words change their meanings and connotations over time. For example, hussy comes from the word housewife and used to refer to the mistress of a household, an honourable position, the exact opposite to the disreputable woman it refers to today. When writing historicals it is wise to keep an etymology dictionary handy. I find this one on-line useful.
So, now I’m going through my WIP on the hunt for unintended red flags. My heroines can still be strong, decisive, and, occasionally cranky and plain-spoken, but they must remain likeable.
So, thanks to Blake Snyder and the unsympathetic hero for warning me away from “idiot” unless I really mean it.
How about you? Are there words or actions that cause you to close a book and write the author off your TBR list? Are there themes that are auto-buy for you? I’d love to read your comments.