Last week, we talked about authors writing messages (subtle and obvious) into their stories. This week, I want to look at the reader. How much does a reader glean from a story? Does he pick up on everything an author intends? Does he find less? More?
I'm sure that depends on the reader, of course – his life experience, his way of thinking, how open-minded he is, etc. But, what if a reader gets a message from a book that tells him it’s okay to cheat on his girlfriend? Or, maybe another reader gets a message that she should take her cheating boyfriend back if he promises not to do it again. Say these readers follow the message, and everything ends in disaster. Is that the author’s fault? Or the readers’? Or, is it no one’s fault?
Some recent books to evoke such strong reactions, both negatively and positively, are the TWILIGHT books by Stephanie Meyer. Some say that she sends unrealistic messages to girls – girls should be helpless so a man can take care of them, possessive boyfriends are romantic, suicide is an acceptable solution to breakups, etc. Others say that the stories send messages of strength, family, and friendship. Who is right?
Another book to evoke strong reactions was THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS. Frankie’s character is a strategist, able to set aside her emotions and assess a situation in order to get what she wants. Some said this makes it okay to be cold-hearted. Others said it was a brilliant message about thinking clearly and going after what you want. Who is right?
The short answer, of course, is that they’re both right. A reader is going to glean what he can from a book based on who he is and what his experiences are. That makes his interpretation of the story ‘right’ (even if it’s incomplete) because it’s his interpretation.
The gray areas come with the author. Say a teenage girl read TWILIGHT, then ran off and married the first possessive boyfriend she found. Is that the author’s fault? Not really. Is the author somewhat responsible? Well, that’s where things get fuzzy.
Authors are in the position to reach many readers. And, depending on how well the words are written, authors can potentially influence a good portion of their readers. Therefore, authors do need to be careful with their words. Especially since readers have all kinds of different experiences, backgrounds, and ways of thinking. The author has just one.
So how is it even possible for an author to account for all those different readers, to ensure their messages don’t go awry?
Short answer: she can’t.
Long answer: the closest an author can get is to use a similar strategy to writing characters.
A highly effective way of writing a character is to pretend to be that person. How he thinks, what he likes or dislikes, how he would react to certain situations given his background, etc. By pretending to be that person, the author can better write the character.
An author can take this strategy and apply it to reading her manuscript. She can pretend to be someone in her target audience while reading the story, then try to figure out how that person would react to certain parts. It’s certainly not all-inclusive, but it’s something. And authors are very good at putting themselves in other people’s shoes. If they weren’t, all the characters would be exactly alike. : )
Has anyone tried anything like this? If so, please share your experience!