Monday, February 16, 2009

The Customer Is Always Right, Right?

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!


Unknown said...

There will always be people who are influenced by the written word, whether the intention to influence is there or not. An author can do very little about it. If those impressionable girls hadn't picked the message up from Twilight, they'd have watched a movie or a TV show or read a different book and taken something from that.

Marcia said...

Wow, that's an interesting suggestion about the author reading reading the book while pretending to be an audience member. No, it never occurred to me to try that. If you really give yourself the chance to settle into that person's psyche, much as you do for your character, it might work. It also requires you to know your target audience well, doesn't it? I know one thing that really helps you ferret out unintended messages, or two-edged-sword messages, is time away from the ms. You do have to read it as a "new" person in order to see those, and your method is another way of doing that. Very thought-provoking post! :)

Bish Denham said...

Some people seeem to be more easily influenced by what they read and/or watch than others. They seem to "forget" they are reading/watching a FICTION story.

The history of what people have done after they've read or heard something is long. The Beatles had their Charlie Manson.

I'm not sure what the answer is, and I'm not sure there's anything that can be done to prevent it from happening. I think there will always be people who don't seem to have much in the way of common-sense.

Tabitha said...

Beth - yes, that's true, there will always be people influenced by something they've read. But that doesn't mean we should give up and let it happen. There are things we writers can do to minimize unintended messages - I think it's our responsibility, to some extent. We can't eliminate them all, but we can at least remove some.

Marcia - Time away from the ms is a must! :) I haven't heard of many people reading from another person's perspective. I do it, but that's because I want to be sure there isn't another message overshadowing my own. And yes, I agree that you'd need to know your target audience really well for this to work. It's certainly not foolproof (nothing is), but it helps.

Bish - so true. There are all kinds of people out there, and some are better than others at deciphering fiction and the messages inside. Authors certainly can't prevent it all, but we can limit unintended messages. They're easier to spot with time away from the ms (as Marcia said), and it's also possible to see others by looking at your work from multiple perspectives. Even though we can't possibly catch them all, I think it's still good to try. :)

Jacqui said...

This is why I think a diverse, vocal critique group is so important!

Anonymous said...

In grad school, I studied communications. There are many experiments showing that people choose to take from a text those messages that reinforce what they already believe. Food for thought!

PJ Hoover said...

Like Beth said, the influences are everywhere. So yes, authors are influencing people who read their books, but this influence has been going on since writing began. How many boys set off to sail the ocean after Homer wrote The Odyssey? How many wanted to fight in a war after reading the Illiad? If I were a guy, I'd want to be as cool as Achilles :)

I haven't really tried to read as one of my target audience - at least not enough. But it's a great suggestion to do so!

Martha Flynn said...

I think you can't escape that every story grounds itself in some kind of moral center that the reader takes with them.

Even though I'm a fully realized adult, some itsy bitsy part of me (you know, when I'm sleep deprived and starving) descends into fairy tale mode of "why can't some prince just sweep in and rescue me" before I slap myself silly and do it on my own.

Mary Witzl said...

Readers will draw all sorts of messages from the books they read. Just look at how different people have interpreted the Bible or the Koran...

Personally, I want to write books that depict healthy relationships, particularly when I know that girls are going to be reading them. But I remember reading some awful books for girls when I was a teenager, with the message "Be good sweet maid and let who will be clever." They were great for me and I'm so glad I read them: they gave me something to rebel against.

Tabitha said...

Wow, I think this blog post is a perfect example of what I was trying to say. :) I'm not saying that I think authors need to go through and get rid of everything that readers will misconstrue. That's impossible (as stated in my post). What we *can* do is make sure there aren't any messages that go against what we want to convey. Because that's closer to us, and easier to see.

Jacqui - exactly! The more perspectives we have, the better our chances are of conveying what we want to convey.

Jenn - yep, which is why it's impossible for an author to account for everything. An author is one person with one set of experiences, but readers come from everywhere with their own experiences and beliefs.

PJ - I'm not saying that influence is bad. I read a few books as a kid that had a wonderful influence on me. And there's no way around influence, because it's going to happen. But the thing we can do is try to remove the things that may go against the messages we want to convey. But if the reader is construing things that are outside the realm of what we want to say, there's not much we can do about that. :)

MF - I think everyone does that (wishes a fairy godmother would just fix everything already). :) But not everyone will slap themselves silly and do it themselves, so good for you! :)

Mary - this is a *perfect* example of what I was trying to say! You like to write stories that convey a certain thing. Therefore, you would NOT want your stories to accidentally convey the opposite, right? These are the things we, as writers, can look for and fix. :)

Keri Mikulski said...

Interesting post.

One of my professors said in college - "A book is an experience and there is much more space between the reader and the book. Movies and television, however, viewers are more likely to react because it's right there."

As an author, I don't think you can prepare your ms to how every reader will react, since some will react differently then others. I like your idea of diving in as your target audience. :)

C.J. Raymer said...

Great post, Tabitha, as usual.

Certain individuals will always be influenced by one medium or another. Whether it be a movie, a novel, or lyrics to a song, there will always be someone who will take to heart the message that they have chosen to extract.

I do write as if I'm the reader. I don't do it to influence only to "feel" what the reader may feel.

"Becoming the reader is the essence of becoming a writer." - John O'Hara


Gutsy Living said...

I agree. I never assumed others might "copy" the actions my family took to rescue our son from bad choices. We moved to a third world country. As far as teenagers, they probably are far more influenced by situations in a book, especially if they feel insecure about themselves. Great post.

Christina Farley said...

I think as authors, we do have a lot of influence over our readers, more perhaps than parents or teachers because we are sending it through characters that are their peers.

Merc said...

I don't intentionally set out to write messages of any kind--especially ones that will be taken the wrong way.

BUT, people will read what they want into anything if they try. I may not intentionally try give the wrong ideas or impressions, but I'm not going to worry about if it there are questionable elements that are there due to the kind of story I'm writing and content.

I'm sure I'll always insult, offend, shock, influence, whatever someone, somewhere. Worrying about how every single person might possibly take something is pointless, and frankly I'm not wasting my mental energy.

I realize there is some responsibility as the author--but worrying about that ONE person who might take it wrong is just not worth it for me. I'm not censoring myself to the point of writing nothing with any depth or avoiding all touchy subjects period because there is a chance that someone, somewhere, will take it wrong.

If people started doing stuff en masse due to something I wrote, then I'd worry.

Otherwise, while I acknowledge the responsibility, I can't control how everyone reads, what mood they are in, or how they interpret it through world-view and experience, etc. *shrugs*

It's not that I don't care, but I think if we started worrying about every small possible thing we would never get anywhere at all.

My .03 cents (since prices are going up everywhere ;))


Tabitha said...

Keri - you're absolutely right, you can't prepare your ms for everything. That's not possible. But we can prepare it for some things, especially the things that are most important to us. :)

CJ - glad to see another person who writes like a reader! :) And I couldn't agree more with John O'Hara. :)

GutsyWriter - so true, pre-teens and teenagers are incredibly impressionable, which makes it even more important for MG and YA writers to be sure they're sending the right messages. We can't possibly account for everything, but, like Jacqui said, a diverse critique group can work wonders. :)

Christina - I completely agree. Setting up characters that a reader identifies with can create major influence, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. If we didn't want to influence people, why do we bother to write? :)

Merc - interesting. :) You know, I never said that I thought we needed to account for every little thing. That's not possible, because you can't please all of the people all of the time. But if you don't write with any kind of intended message, then you've got nothing to worry about, because there's no message for the reader to misunderstand. You know? :)

This has been a really interesting discussion, and I think it's a great example of this blog post:

What I was trying to say - "We need to be able to stand behind our work, believing that each and every word we've set down for public view says exactly what we want it to say, even though we can't account for everything."

What some people heard - "You need to sift through your manuscript and ensure that there's nothing that anyone could misconstrue, ever."

I've read through my blog post, and believe I've said exactly what I wanted to say. But there's nothing I can do about messages that others take from it. And I'm okay with that, because I believe I did my best. :)

Anonymous said...

Late to the game - STILL behind on my blog reading from the /one week/ I had off in January :'( - but I just wanted to say that this is a GREAT post - followed by a very interesting discussion :D

Thanks, tab :)