Applying Heart to Sleeve

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]

One thing you find out very quickly as a published writer is, readers are perfectly capable of having wildly divergent reactions to any given aspect of your story, even to the point of flat-out contradiction. One reviewer thinks your plot is a roller-coaster ride of thrilling and unexpected turns; another finds it pedestrian and utterly predictable. These folks over here adore your prose style as a lyrical painting in words, but those over there decry it as flat and unevocative. Mileage doesn’t just vary; it hardly seems to have gone over the same road.

Which is by way of an lead-in to this revelation: I think I’ve pinpointed at least one reason why there’s such a spectrum of reactions to my characters.

You can imagine the range without me citing specific examples: some readers love my characters for their believability or depth, while others dismiss them as lifeless cardboard. (I would cite, but I don’t want to put anybody on the spot.) A recent iteration of the latter made some synapse fire in a back corner of my brain, connecting that to something I thought of during a brief exchange with Yoon Ha Lee: that, as I am a fairly reserved person, my characters’ idea of demonstrative floods of emotion may not look like much to the extroverts out there.

Most of you have never met me in person, so you have no idea how I behave. The short form is, while I’m friendly and all, especially at cons and other public events, I don’t tend to show much of what I’m really thinking or feeling. (A fact which caused some difficulty for my husband when we first started dating. What’s funnier was when he met my father, from whom I inherited this tendency. But that’s a story for another day.) So I, not really being the sort to wave flags when I’m excited or angry or whatever, don’t tend to wave them for my characters, either. Or rather, I do — by my standards of measurement. And maybe if you’re a similar sort of person, then the things I intend to be flags register as such, and voila, you see depth of emotion. But people who are more used to wearing their hearts on their sleeves will only see a faint tick on the psychological seismograph, and think the character is made out of wood.

I’m not sure if that explanation is right, and even if it is, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Characterization, like every other aspect of the craft, is something I intend to work on from now until they pry my keyboard out of my cold, dead fingers, because I know there are things I can improve. (Like, for example, learning to write some honest-to-god extroverts — you freakish alien things, you. Seriously, how do you live like that?) So I’m not going to throw my hands up in the air and say “well, that’s how I roll, and if you don’t like it then there’s not much I can do.” Because there are things I can do, and will.

But this feels like a useful realization. Improving things goes a lot better once you understand what it is you’re doing now.