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Writers manipulating readers
June 5, 2013 12:15 PM   Subscribe

"I've been thinking recently about the way readers come to be in sympathy with characters in a story. This is something that isn't talked about much, and when it is it seems to be in terms of how to manipulate the reader. Indeed, I stopped reading Orson Scott Card for a different reason than the reason everyone else stopped reading him -- long ago he said in a book on how to write that you get reader sympathy by taking a sympathetic character, preferably a child, and doing something terrible to them, like for instance torturing them. Once I knew he was doing this on purpose it was like "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain", I couldn't enjoy reading because I felt manipulated. Also, torturing children? Really? That's the only way to make me care? I don't think so." -- Jo Walton's Wiscon speech on how to make readers care about your characters.
posted by MartinWisse (42 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh, man, I got to see this speech live and it was fantastic. Jo Walton is consistently brilliant. (The reading she did of a novel-in-progress - she gets bored with whatever she's currently touring on and does this; I've now heard snippets at least two books ahead of publication - was fucking mindblowing too.)
posted by restless_nomad at 12:18 PM on June 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I actually liked Joan Slonczewski's speech more; protons and feminists! Jo's speech felt more appropriate to Fourth Street. It was quite good, though.
posted by jiawen at 12:24 PM on June 5, 2013


Jo Walton rocks. Go read Among Others if you haven't... (And a book collecting her Tor.com essays is coming out early 2014.)
posted by Zed at 12:26 PM on June 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


The references to George RR Martin are apt.
posted by shivohum at 12:30 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Really? She didn't like The Sparrow? I found that book's characters to be really, absurdly, like heart-breakingly human. They reminded me a lot of the Quakers that I grew up around. But then again, LeGuin leaves me totally cold (although I acknowledge her place in the hierarchy of ground-breakers.)

Now that I think about it, I actually disagree with most of this. I mean, I totally get her point about you can't control your readers' points of view on what you're trying to show them. But I am just about opposite on the tropes she talks about: I generally hate Platonic characters because they tend to feel like Here Is The Best Way to Live and You Should Do This instead of a peek into someone else's crazy morally ambiguous world. And I love nothing more than well-done Jeopardy-- when things have gone so insanely wrong that you're clutching the book and yelling what else could possibly happen and then, yep, something else horrible that's been alluded to from the beginning but you forgot about in all the excitement happens. (Looking at you, Scott Lynch, Dorothy Dunnett.)

Weird that we have such different tastes but I love her work. Among Others was crazy brilliant and very emotional reading for me.
posted by WidgetAlley at 12:33 PM on June 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


long ago he said in a book on how to write that you get reader sympathy by taking a sympathetic character, preferably a child, and doing something terrible to them, like for instance torturing them.

Or, if you're Lars von Trier, substitute a child with a woman.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:35 PM on June 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


And I love nothing more than well-done Jeopardy

Well, yeah, and I think Walton would agree with you and does like Dunnet a lot, but what she's objecting to is starting the book with the character in mortal danger, before you have a reason to care for them.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:38 PM on June 5, 2013


but what she's objecting to is starting the book with the character in mortal danger, before you have a reason to care for them.

Like she did with King's Peace? Personally, I can't stand Jo Walton. As a writer I mean. As person I'm sure she's fine.
posted by nooneyouknow at 12:41 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Indeed, I stopped reading Orson Scott Card for a different reason than the reason everyone else stopped reading him -- long ago he said in a book on how to write that you get reader sympathy by taking a sympathetic character, preferably a child, and doing something terrible to them, like for instance torturing them.

With that example, it's interesting that she later brings up Lolita, in which Nabokov tortures a child, Dolores, to death, fully intending the audience to sympathize with her, and not her rapist. By having Humbert Humbert narrate the story, he forces the audience to pick apart his lies and excuses, distracting them from the cliche that would have been obvious if the narration had been in the third person.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:54 PM on June 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Not every good novel, even a genre novel, is a character drama. Rendezvous with Rama has complete cyphers for characters, for example. I think that the widespread belief that every genre novel must be a character drama at any cost has resulted in a proliferation of loosely plotted, sprawling, aimless character dramas. And the ploy wherein a character is placed into imminent mortal danger or is tortured, merely to provoke the reader's sympathy, is a central symptom of this tendency.
posted by Nomyte at 12:59 PM on June 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


You're right, MartinWisse, I'd forgotten she was a Dunnett fan herself. I guess I'm just leery of writers who say, "I don't like X trope!" when I myself find I will accept basically every single trope known to man if executed properly and considered in isolation. That's totally a personal thing, though.

Nomyte, I think you're right that there is a big push towards character novels. Some of the most refreshing genre stuff I've read lately is decidedly more about the world-building and the writing and the setting than the characters. KJ Bishop's The Etched City comes to mind.
posted by WidgetAlley at 1:03 PM on June 5, 2013


Like she did with King's Peace?

Actually, that starts with a dedication by the protagonist, looking back on her long life and the changes she has seen during it, so much change that she now feels like a stranger in her own land, her own youth almost a legend. It's only after this that she gets into danger.

So no.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:05 PM on June 5, 2013


This goes hand in hand with the lazy trope in which the BAD EVIL characters must kick off the plot with some form of atrocity, in order to help the user understand that these characters are the bad characters, and the people who only fire when fired upon must be the good characters.

I'm especially fed up with female characters whose only minor part in the plot is to get raped, kidnapped or otherwise molested in order to fulfil both of these tropes at once. The scenes in question are usually not there to garner the viewer's sympathy for the throwaway character; only in order to garner sympathy for her father, boyfriend or husband.

Female characters who are more interesting and relevant to the plot than chess pawns are also a lot more sympathetic.
posted by emilyw at 1:08 PM on June 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


(The reading she did of a novel-in-progress - she gets bored with whatever she's currently touring on and does this; I've now heard snippets at least two books ahead of publication - was fucking mindblowing too.)

More likely a marketing strategy. Like coming features preview. Seems to have worked with you. (I approve of it, by the way. Just saying, it's not done without forethought.)
posted by IndigoJones at 1:08 PM on June 5, 2013


I first had this thought ... during a flamewar on a Trollope mailing list.
Ain't no flamewar like a Trollope mailing list flamewar.

BTW, I'm not a writer or anything, so I don't know what shop talk is usually like, but it surprised me that she talked so little (did she even mention it?) about whether or not the writer cares about their characters.
posted by edheil at 1:09 PM on June 5, 2013


I'm pretty sure that in both cases marketing was not her first concern - she was very much preaching to the choir.

I don't think in this case the writer's feelings are relevant. She's talking about how to make the reader care, and "the writer must care" is kind of a cliche. Not untrue, but not the subject under discussion.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:12 PM on June 5, 2013


Oh back on Usenet, when she was writing her first couple of novels, she did talk about how Sulien, her protagonist, used to visit her when she was writing her.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:13 PM on June 5, 2013


Actually, that starts with a dedication by the protagonist, looking back on her long life and the changes she has seen during it, so much change that she now feels like a stranger in her own land, her own youth almost a legend. It's only after this that she gets into danger.

So no.


Maybe not in law, but definitely in spirit. Having your character get gang raped on page 7 is definitely putting them in danger without having the readers actually getting to care about them. But it was her first book, so maybe she's better at that.
posted by nooneyouknow at 1:17 PM on June 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


King's Peace was 'cross-the-room-throwingly bad for me, on the order of many of the other horse and unicorn fantasy writers. Starting with Tooth and Claw, however, she's produced an amazing set of novels. Amongst Others is probably her most fully realized book, in terms of character. It's an interesting contrast when read back-to-back with Lev Grossman's The Magicians, as I did a few summers ago.
posted by bonehead at 1:19 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


More likely a marketing strategy. Like coming features preview. Seems to have worked with you.

DON'T EAT THAT BREAD MAN YOU'RE JUST A TOOL OF BIG FOOD!
posted by JHarris at 1:26 PM on June 5, 2013 [7 favorites]


KJ Bishop's The Etched City comes to mind

What the heck happened to this author, anyway? Hopefully nothing bad.

The only Jo Walton I've read was "The Rebirth of Pan", which was compelling but maybe a bit too out there.
posted by selfnoise at 1:27 PM on June 5, 2013


DON'T EAT THAT BREAD MAN YOU'RE JUST A TOOL OF BIG FOOD!

What the-?

Anyway, I did just say I approved of it as a marketing strategy, for this author or any other. Audiences like it. Makes them feel warm and loved. As they should feel.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:31 PM on June 5, 2013


Maybe not in law, but definitely in spirit. Having your character get gang raped on page 7 is definitely putting them in danger without having the readers actually getting to care about them.

Not for me, as you may have guessed. I already liked Sulien before we got to that.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:33 PM on June 5, 2013


I was with her right up until "they were lacking the set of genre reading protocols". I'm hoping that was tongue-in-cheek, and I'm just missing the nuance.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:38 PM on June 5, 2013


What the-?
Anyway, I did just say I approved of it as a marketing strategy,


Where does it stop making sense to stop talking about something as a "marketing strategy," and start talking about it as just nice things to do? Because to a certain mindset being nice is just another marketing strategy, to be discarded the moment it stops adding pennies to the sacred bottom line. Anyway, it's a horribly reductive term that conflates ad slogans, TV commercials, and being nice to people. I submit that if everything you do that might possibly be considered positive is just a marketing strategy, then the term is meaningless and should not be used.
posted by JHarris at 1:53 PM on June 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


Have the character make decisions. Wrong decisions or right decisions you become complicit with the character. Too many characters only react.
The decisions should have a logic within the piece and come from the character.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:58 PM on June 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


The problem, of course, is that "the characters don't act like people" is not an objective thing. I thought Emilio -- the main character in The Sparrow -- acted absolutely human, while the completely interchangeable slightly flighty young ladies in Walton's Small Change trilogy didn't. (I didn't like Among Others either, but did like Lifelode a lot.)

I agree that "take a character, add horrible things or jeopardy, result is love" trope is usually badly done and then feels very manipulative and fake, but when it works it's really effective.
posted by jeather at 2:03 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I like my characters sarcastic, omniscient, and in charge of spacecraft kilometers long. Just like my Minds.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 2:58 PM on June 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think her piece is a bit more nuanced. The rhetorical structure is to open up with something provocative and then to explore both sides. It's not "I don't like X trope" but "I don't like depending on X trope for character development." That's an important distinction.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:06 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


BitterOldPunk, "genre reading protocols" might not be the most poetic way of putting it, but it's a real thing. Among Others is a great example, and she gives it-- if you're reading it with the knowledge and perspective of a fantasy reader, you can engage with the fairies and magic and the world that it takes place in, but if you don't have that framework, you're liable to interpret it entirely differently (for example, with the assumption that the magic is a figment of the protagonist's imagination).

Most sci-fi, as well, you need to come into with the the idea that you don't just need to be reading to understand the characters and story, but also the world.
posted by 4th number at 3:22 PM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Manipulate" has the root word for "hand" on the front. Using it as a transitive verb, the author manipulating the reader, suggests they are moving you about with their hands, or perhaps moulding you. It's a rather intimate word. A lot of people actually like being manipulated. That's why it's generally a compliment to say that art "touches" us, rather than "affects" or whatever.

I think there are lots of ways to make a reader feel sympathetic to a character without feeling intimate with them. I find this is usually how it works out when I read graphic novels or watch movies, because even when they're narrated in the first person, I'm still looking at the characters; the narration may sound conversational, but the work doesn't look that way. I get something similar from Hemingway, whose narrative tone seems to me the antithesis of "conversational".

That way of evoking sympathy is closely analogous to the bas relief Walton describes. I don't know if she actually writes like this. Not having read her novels, I can't say whether they are touching, affecting, or neither.
posted by LogicalDash at 3:27 PM on June 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


On a more general note, yes, artists "manipulate" their audience, but that word is definitely a double-edged sword. Just as is the word art. Art is great, right? But what about "artifice" or "artificial?" Not such a good feeling, right? In fact, "artless" can be a compliment: it can indicate that the artist is not so skillful at her art that she can "manipulate" her audience; she is just telling it like it is, as a fellow human being.

J.D. Salinger puts it well through the "unreliable narrator" Holden Caulfield when Holden talks about a piano player named Ernie. Holden feels sorry for Ernie because he plays all these fancy arpeggios (frilly piano playing) - presumably in place of genuine artistic expression. This type of piano playing manipulates the audience into thinking they are hearing good music. Ironically, as Holden recognizes, Ernie plays this flashy style because the audience has manipulated Ernie into playing this way through their applause!

I am writing this as an English teacher and a jazz pianist, by the way, just to explain why I picked this example. You might consider this comment as a meta-commentary on the more specific writerly concerns Wiscon addresses here. I am not familiar with any of the works she uses as illustrations.
posted by kozad at 3:52 PM on June 5, 2013


Nobody suffers more than that Jesuit priest in The Sparrow -- what was his name again? (That's another bad sign, if I can't remember their names.)

Emilio Sandoz, which hasn't left my brain since I first read it over fifteen years ago. That's one hell of a book.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 7:13 PM on June 5, 2013


I've honestly never understood this assumption that writers need to write main characters that are sympathetic, or that readers need to put themselves "in the shoes" of the main character somehow. The main character is not your avatar, like in a video game. Or, at least, a novel's quality as literature does not depend on this type of positioning.
posted by adso at 8:15 PM on June 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've honestly never understood this assumption that writers need to write main characters that are sympathetic, or that readers need to put themselves "in the shoes" of the main character somehow. The main character is not your avatar, like in a video game. Or, at least, a novel's quality as literature does not depend on this type of positioning.
I think this is just an exaggeration of your typical Fish Out of Water character template. FOW is a useful tool to dodge boring exposition, especially in SF stories where we need to quickly learn what the hell is going on because we're in a some kind of weird world and we need to understand where this story is taking place. So the writer sets up a clueless country bumpkin protagonist (e.g. Luke Skywalker) so the other characters can explain everything to him in scene.

Luke is an extreme example, because he really has no idea what's going on at the beginning of A New Hope, and we get almost all what we know about the Force and such from dialog with Obi Wan, who has to explain everything to this dumb kid. It works with characters who have limited knowledge, too. For example, I'm reading The Algebraist and I just finished a section toward the middle where Fassin (the protagonist) has brought someone with him to visit the Dwellers (big 'ol alien things). Banks cleverly decides that Fassin's companion doesn't know certain things about the Dwellers – e.g., their habits and manner of speaking – which lets him do world-building and other expository work, which would otherwise be taxing on a reader's patience, via the in-scene dialog between the two characters.

So yes, I think when it's clear a writer is overtly trying to make a character seem sympathetic to me, that's a sign that the writer went too far off the deep-end with this technique and dug herself a hole.

Anyway, I kind of went on a tangent there. Reading too much Banks.
posted by deathpanels at 10:19 PM on June 5, 2013


Speaking professionally ...

Torturing your characters is crude, distasteful, and unnecessary. It's not even the best way to generate sympathy.

Lois McMaster Bujold, on one occasion, explained her approach: take her protagonist, work out what the worst [in terms of emotional effect] thing that can happen to them is, then do it. This probably isn't torture; it's more likely to be confronting them with a dilemma, like the possible end of a relationship, or what to do with their life after getting fired from their dream job for gross misconduct. The point is to bring the protagonist's character into focus—which in turn provides extra depth and perspective for the reader. We empathize more easily with rounded, conflicted, and nuanced characters than with cardboard cut-outs.

Torturing characters or applying crude, brutal motivations (Women in Refrigerators) is dumb. It's a tacit admission that the author doesn't know how to motivate their protagonist without using an electric cattle prod. Furthermore, it's almost always unrealistic: here in the real world, emotional and physical abuse and torture doesn't motivate people—in the vast majority of cases it breaks them.

(So I try not to do that. Except where the protagonist is a monster in search of redemption—Robin/Reeve in Glasshouse, the Toymaker in Rule 34. And I try not to write protagonists like that too often.)
posted by cstross at 3:44 AM on June 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


deathpanels: "I think this is just an exaggeration of your typical Fish Out of Water character template. FOW is a useful tool to dodge boring exposition"

As you know, Bob.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:31 AM on June 6, 2013


Torturing characters or applying crude, brutal motivations (Women in Refrigerators) is dumb. It's a tacit admission that the author doesn't know how to motivate their protagonist without using an electric cattle prod. Furthermore, it's almost always unrealistic: here in the real world, emotional and physical abuse and torture doesn't motivate people—in the vast majority of cases it breaks them.

I'm calling bullshit on this. I think a lot of this discussion has been a bit too binary. Bujold isn't above torturing her characters. Mark Vorkosigan has one of the most fucked up character histories in science fiction. They key distinction I tend to make as a reader is whether the text is about survivors or victims. A fair bit of Bujold's more interesting character development is about the ways in which people survive and put themselves and their families back together (extrapolated to culture and politics as well.)

The notion that people are broken by trauma leads to the kind of banal evil discussed earlier in the month, where escape is pointless because once raped, you're worthless.

I finished Perdido Street Station about a month ago, and the moral climax comes a few chapters before the action climax. I'd rank the hospital scene as one of the most horrifying chapters of fiction I've ever read. But for the protagonists choose to salvage what little moral virtue they have remaining after that horror in the last chapter is entirely reasonable, because that's what people do. To paraphrase a great bard, we "take apart our nightmares and leave them at the door," perhaps for an hour, or perhaps for a week. (Which is partly why I'm a big fan of Romero-style zombie movies. The horror isn't the zombie, it's the living people who become moral zombies.)

I disagree that character torture is inherently bad. I think it's bad when it becomes kitsch, when you attempt to simulate grief, trauma, or evil by just throwing a bunch of common icons and symbols of them onto the page or screen. And since you don't trust the audience to get it the first time, you pile them on higher and deeper, or linger on the screen much longer than necessary for the audience to get the picture. If you're going to use torture as a short-cut to demonstrate character badness, you only need a few seconds to communicate the idea. Firefly, The Train Job (since I'm rewatching), has a brief shot of body through doorway, a quick bit of dialogue, and then the conflict is established and we can get on with the rest of the episode.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:48 PM on June 6, 2013


"But for the protagonists choose to salvage what little moral virtue they have remaining after that horror in the last chapter is entirely reasonable"

Should be:

For the protagonists to choose in the last chapter to salvage what little moral virtue they have remaining after the horrors of the climax is entirely reasonable...
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:52 PM on June 6, 2013


YMMV, of course, but it was precisely that character torture that totally ruined Perdido Street Station for me.
posted by Chrysostom at 3:44 PM on June 6, 2013


Yes, people do often recover to some extent after violence or traumatic experiences.

But it usually takes time. As in, months to years. (Maybe mere days to weeks for something like a mugging with fisticuff-level violence. A lot longer for a stabbing or a shooting, much less a bludgeon to the back of the head. And those are relatively trivial compared to the trauma and grief of a murdered family member or systematic torture.)

And in plot-driven narrative long-form fiction, time is the enemy of tension. So there's a tendency for authors to compress the recovery time down to zero, or a couple of hours, or to down-play it.
posted by cstross at 2:35 AM on June 7, 2013


In my opinion, if the Old English author of Beowulf can wrestle with surviving tragedy and loss in a few dozen lines, there's little excuse for a novelist's failure to do so over the scope of a scene. Frankly, the dichotomy between broken/empowered strikes me as bad comic-book writing. That's old-school Lex/Superman or Joker/Batman stuff begging for a better writer to come along and unpack that.

That's one dimension of bad tragic writing. The other dimension involves using the shallow redshirt as instrumental for the development of your main characters.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:51 AM on June 7, 2013


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