I thought I’d talk a little about some of the criticism I have received for my book. Understand, I’m not fishing for people to say, “Oh, it was wonderful, don’t worry!” nor am I feeling defensive. But I am trying to learn and thought it might interest some of you as well since I know there are other beginning writers who read this blog.
When I my book was accepted for publication, I knew that some people would like it and some wouldn’t. I knew some reviews would be good and some wouldn’t. Over 20 years in the theatre have left me fairly objective about my work and open to intelligent criticism. In fact, I pay careful attention to the critical reviews and analyze them because that’s how we learn. I’m a big believer in being teachable. I’m new and want to get better. What I didn’t realize was that those good and bad reviews would cite the same things.
For example, the element that I have heard the most about is the characters. Those who like the book feel that they know the characters, that they are real. They care deeply about them and are drawn into their stories. Those who don’t like the book feel that characters are shallow and clichéd, stereotyped cut-outs.
As I said, it surprised me that different people felt so strongly about the exact same thing, and saw them from such different perspectives.
I’ve been thinking about the character issue a bit. This is interesting to me because, there are things I would change about the book if I were to start on it again tomorrow. But I think the characters would be basically the same.
That’s because they are as they appeared in my mind. Changing them just so they wouldn’t be clichéd would see dishonest to me.
Here’s an example: there was a summer camp on our campus this past week. One of the offerings was a robotics class. Two of the students taking the class are girls of Chinese descent. I walked past them and happened to hear them comparing their notes about violin lessons. Incidentally, they have soft voices.
Now, if I were to write a novel about an Asian girl who talks softly but takes robotic classes in the summer and plays the violin, I would be accused of writing a clichéd character. I understand that. And yet…there are Asians who do those things and they are just as real as Asians who do not engage in those activities. So, if I write about a young woman of Asian descent, do I need to studiously make her do the opposite of these real-life counterparts? Have a bad attitude, talk back to her parents and watch MTV instead of studying—just for the sake of not being cliched? I get that this can be refreshing to some extent. But to do it for the sake of just not being regulat seems as contrived and unrealistic as a cliché.
I suppose I could have taken the characters as they appeared in my mind and changed things around. Curtis could have been a poor, grumpy Elder’s Quorum President. Ed could have been a lonely ultra-orthodox conservative. Stephanie could have been a middle-aged woman with depression instead of a young mother. That sounds like an interesting story. But it wouldn’t be my story. I can only write about what I know and what I can imagine. One well-known author/agent/editor/publisher says emphatically that we don’t want to portray regular people in books—we should emphasize the eccentric and show what peopled don’t know.
I understand that. But in theatre, success of characterization is measured by the degree to which an actor or director takes an ordinary person and gives them depth and a credible emotional life. In fact, if one is playing an eccentric character, most actors will try to tone down the eccentricities, or at least ground them in a realistic emotional context. The highest praise for most actors or directors would be that they showed new emotional layers in an otherwise ordinary, common, regular character.
That’s what I tried to do with The Road Show. Whether or not I succeeded is an open question, and one that every reader can answer for his or herself.
Part of what I hoped to accomplish with The Road Show was to take characters that were readily recognizable in Mormon circles and lift the curtains on their lives a bit. I hoped to open the reader’s heart and help see beyond the obvious.
That is one of the great revelations that comes with being a bishop. Ordinary, average people come to you and suddenly you see that they are struggling with terrible problems and burdens. It may be a cliché that someone struggles with pornography or depression, but it is not a cliché to that person as they experience it first-hand with all the human drama that comes along with it. When a human is suffering they are anything but average, anything but cliched.
My goal was to start with recognizable types, clichés if you want, and hopefully help the reader see that there was a real person there. The idea being that in real life, I think we look at people and quickly assess them and then assign them into our own clichés. He’s a liberal, she’s a conservative, he’s unorthodox, she’s uptight—without realizing that the human emotions they have make them living, dimensional people.
The extent to which I succeed is clearly a matter for individual readers to decide. But I maintain that the goal itself is worthy. That's the kind of LDS fiction I want to write--it's the only kind that interests me.
Ok, does this post make me sound defensive? :)
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