Reviewing Books: Why Characterization, Always?

on Jul 17, 2012
As an indie author and publisher, reviews are always on the brain. How can they not be? Get enough bad reviews on a book, and people stop reading it!

But while cruising the forums and pages on, a trend has jumped out at me.

Most readers leave reviews about characterization.

Which makes sense, since most readers like to "live" through the eyes of the character.

But Why?

Very honestly, after the last five years I've spent as a Creative Writing major, let me tell you -- characterization does not necessarily indicate good or bad writing!

Now everyone is entitled to their opinion and, obviously, not all readers care about the "Art of Writing" or technique. But the overwhelming amount of reviews that focus on characterization started to become ludicrous to me. I would see comments like "This character is so annoying, I couldn't finish the book!" or "She acted completely contrary to her character, which was not very believable," or "His character was too cruel, which made me dislike him," or "There was no justification for why she acted that way."

Also, supposedly "good" writers spend all of their time introducing the nuances of their characters, and completely skimp on the prose, the verse, metaphor, alliteration, delay, and the myriad other techniques used in skilled writing.

The 21st Century Trend

For those of you that care, I want to point out that this whole obsession with "psychological realism" in terms of characterization is a TREND. It is simply the era we have been born into. Realism has been on the rise since the 19th century and psychological analysis found its place in the 20th century. Authors have not always cared about characterization or explaining "how" and "why".... and neither have readers.

Which brings me to the traits of a 21st century "good read":

1) Highly psychological. Characters should have in depth back stories, substantial "inner" conflict that drives the plot, self doubt coupled with personal growth, themes such as the search for independence, salvation, overcoming one's demons, finding love, and of course, they must experience complete emotional resolution towards the end of the book.

2) Plot should be fast-paced and full of explosions, mystery, hand-to-hand combat, sassy dialogue, lots of attitude, sex, drugs, and rock n' roll.

3) Technique should be watered down to the extent that a 15 year old can read it, no brainer.

4) No poetry allowed! *hssss*

5) Stories are event based, not "message" based. For instance, people often discuss what happens in a book (primarily between the characters.) Once upon a time, readers were more interested in the underlying message of a book, the lesson that can be learned, the political commentary or cultural discussion taking place. But of course, common day readers don't care about that. Just skim to the sex scene, why not.
Literature is also highly cultural. What I am trying to say is, read a translated book from Japan, India, or Russia, and you might find the characters highly lacking in psychological depth. Why? Not because it's "bad writing," but because they culturally and stylistically place less importance on a character being "believable." They understand that a story is just a fabrication, and doesn't need to make perfect psychological sense.

What do you think? When you read a book, do you focus mainly on the characterization? Do you find yourself hating/loving a character? What's so special about a "believable" character, anyhow? :)


Melissa Sasina said...

I want to give you a cookie for this! :D

Unknown said...

I love to feel like I'm apart of the book.Who wouldn't?I like to think what happened in the book would happen to me.

poetsforpeanuts said...

I totally agree! I like character driven stories too. Just thinking about today's trends in the ongoing history of writing...

I wonder if we are somehow conditioned to "need more" from our characters these days... like maybe people had better imaginations in the past, and didn't need such a fleshed out character to "inject" themselves into the story....

Either way, I'm thankful for current trends, because that's definitely how I write... :p

poetsforpeanuts said...

Haha thanks Melissa!

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