History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

06 July 2011

Revisions & the Sympathy Factor

I turned in revisions yesterday on my Waterloo-set book, Imperial Scandal (which will be out in April 2012). I love the revision process, a chance to hone and shape and refine the story and characters (though I get very nervous letting the book go, afraid I've missed something). Thinking back through the revisions, I didn't actually make that many major changes (though it certainly felt as though I was working on them long enough!). But I did make one significant change at my editor's suggestion. It involved reworking a scene which originally involved infidelity on the part of the one of the major characters.

This was a scene I'd had in my own mind for a long time before I wrote Imperial Scandal, and I was sure that this was how this would play out for these two characters (two people who are devastated and cast adrift in the wake of the battle of Waterloo). But my editor was afraid it would destroy reader sympathy for the character committing infidelity and on reflection I could totally see her point (I had actually known I was pushing the envelope with this scene). When I broached the topic on my website with some readers who were familiar with both characters, reactions were mixed, but in general convinced me my editor was right to worry about the sympathy issue.

Oddly enough, going back to Leslie's and Pam's recent excellent posts on writing sex scenes, this was the one sex scene I'd written recently where it actually seemed important to show some detail of how the scene played out. I'd actually had some qualms myself about whether or not one of the characters (not the one committing infidelity as it happens) would actually go through with it. I ended up writing two new versions of the scene, one in which the characters almost make love and break it off, one in which is a tearful farewell without lovemaking (though it does still include a farewell kiss). I ended up using the later, and I'm quite happy with it and how it fits into the arc of the book. But when I was describing the revision over the weekend to a writer friend who had read the original manuscript, she said she'd liked the way the scene originally played out (even though it surprised her) and that it actually made her more sympathetic to the characters.

Which prompted me to think about what makes me lose sympathy for a character. It's an elusive thing. In general, once I'm engaged with a character, I will stick with her or him through a lot. And an action that might make me lose sympathy for one character in one set of circumstances might not bother me so much with another character in other circumstances. Heathcliff lost my sympathy when he let his sickly son die (not calling a doctor). Francis Crawford of Lymond held on to my sympathy when he was more directly responsible for the death of his son, the difference for me I think being that Heathcliff acts out of anger and hurt whereas Lymond is trying to save others. And that Lymond is wracked with guilt afterward. I confess I lost sympathy for Fanny Price when she objected to amateur theatricals. Whereas Emma's Woodhouse's treatment of Miss Bates saddened me but didn't destroy my sympathy for Emma. Of course Emma too feels guilt afterward.

I'm still pondering other characters and what engages or disengages my sympathy. Meanwhile, while I like the revised scene in Imperial Scandal, I'm also glad I had the chance to write it the way I originally envisioned it. After Imperial Scandal is published, I'll post all three versions on my website. I'll very interested in reader reactions.

Writers, what's the biggest change you've made in the revision process? Have you ever changed something because you were worried about reader reactions? Readers, has a character you liked (particularly in an ongoing series) ever lost your sympathy? Why?

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Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Wonderful post, Tracy! The sympathy issue is something I struggle with in nearly every novel, because in general my principal characters are actual historical figures, and I chronicle the events of their lives through a fictional prism.

I've read that some readers found my Helen of Troy, my Emma Hamilton, and my Mary Robinson were unsympathetic; but I was following their biographies and in Helen's case, millennia of mythology (occasionally combining versions of the legends); but all three of those women committed adultery.

Helen left her children (was she really kidnapped by Paris, or did she fall passionately in love and flee a loveless marriage with a control freak), at the expense of abandoning her children?

Emma Hamilton's love affair with Lord Nelson is in my view the greatest star-crossed real-life love story in English history, but their passion caused their respective spouses (esp. Fanny Nelson) public humiliation and pain. And the youthful Emma was a scrappy, if voluptuous, survivor, who did what she needed to, to avoid the sort of life that befell country girls in the capital, or the perils of a factory.

Mary Robinson, whose father abandoned the family when she was nine years old, was (at the age of 15) tricked by her mother (and her husband) into marrying a young law clerk who was not exactly as advertised. He proceeded to cheat on her with the skankiest women and to spend all the money she made as the belle of the London stage, like it was cheap ale. She was also famously, and most publicly, dumped by the Prince of Wales. Was it any wonder that when she fell madly for Tarleton, who she considered the Grand Passion of her life, she was loath to let him go, no matter how many times he tried to end their relationship. A published writer then, she used the power of the pen, by publishing poetry intended to lure him back (it worked a few times).

And yet when one reader took the book to task, claiming she lost all sympathy for Mary over her mooning, pining, desperate behavior when it came to the lopsided relationship with Tarleton, more or less calling her a doormat; and I defended the text, saying that as a writer I prefer to illuminate the actual events of my heroine's life, warts and all, rather than shoehorn her into the psychology of a 21st c. woman (and -- please -- there are plenty of "modern" women who are desperately in love with emotionally abusive men and won't let them go, even when they should; hel-lo, I've been there myself, which was one reason I understood Mary), it started an internet firestorm, because I dared to respond to a review.

Bottom line is that Mary's character didn't work for this reader because she lost sympathy for her.

I wonder: are the "rules" slightly different for historical romance than they are for historical fiction when it comes to ensuring that all characters are sympathetic at all times? If the author justifies the "unsympathetic" behavior, doesn't it make the characters richer and more complex? Or is 100% sympathy expected by readers and editors, no matter the genre or subgenre?

4:23 AM  
Blogger Meg McNulty said...

I love it when novels show their characters warts and all. I don't think adultery is an absolute no no. Eloisa James deals with adultery on both sides of a marriage in This Duchess of Mine and I think she does it without losing sympathy for either character. It shows their vulnerability, weakness and also perhaps, courage. I felt that the story of Jemma and Beaumont and their slow rebuilding of trust was the sweetest and most poignant of the Desperate Duchess series.

It does take real skill to manage taboo subjects like that. You hit precisely on what makes one character likeable and another unlikeable. I think it's to do with them taking responsibility for their actions; being affected by their experiences and maybe being motivated by emotions or experiences that the reader can value or empathise with.

5:09 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Given the backgrounds of both lead characters in your series, I have a hard time seeing just how an infidelity on either of their parts would make me lose sympathy for them. In fact, I’d be gobsmacked if they were to remain faithful during the early years of their marriage of convenience (seems to me that infidelity might actually lead to a realization on one or both of their parts).

8:08 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I have a lot of trouble with this issue, because I lose patience with the genre fiction staple of sympathetic major character in a necessarily protective relationship to some sick, weak, helpless and completely innocent other (J.D. Robb's Eve Dallas brings it all back home by having that other be Eve's own innocent inner child). On the one hand I find this all too easy morally; on the other, as a woman and a mother and now a grandma, I see how often things are actually like this in "real life." (Hold-the-presses memo to those, like me, who might have theory-groupied ourselves into some very tight spaces: sometimes real life is morally easy. Or better, simple.)

And of course all of this is complicated by the necessary selfishness of raging passionate physical desire.

My own solution is to reach for some kind of core decency and empathy in my major characters. Something that perhaps surprises them when they confront it in the midst of narrative action. Even in the throes of their own erotic selfishness.

9:24 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

It's particularly tricky with real historical people, isn't it, Leslie? I recently had a reader comment that she couldn't enjoy the love affairs between the real historical characters in Vienna Waltz, though she found them interesting (and she liked the book) because they involved people married to others and were sad. Which they are to me as well, not so much because they're adulterous as because very few of those people had even a realistic happy ending. But in writing about real people I think one has to stick to who that person was. Otherwise one might as well make up a fictional character. In the case of the heroine in Imperial Scandal, however, she already does some things that could test reader sympathy, so I understand my editor's concerns. And when I brought this up on my website, the reactions of readers (historical fiction readers as well as historical romance readers) did bear out that my editor's qualms were justified.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I like a warts and all view of characters as well, Charity Girl. And I love books that explore taboo subjects such as adultery. The rebuilding of trust can make for a fabulous story. I've heard a lot of good things about "This Duchess of Mine" but I haven't read it yet. You definitely make me want to seek it out. And as you say, I think perhaps it's not so much what the character does as how they respond afterward.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's sort of where I was coming from, Isobel (though actually I can't imagine Malcolm/Charles being unfaithful, he takes vows very seriously, even if the vows are made for convenience). But I did think it made sense for Mélanie/Suzanne, and I did see it as part of a realization about her feelings for her husband (in fact it's part of letting go of her old life). On the other hand, by Imperial Scandal, their marriage really isn't a marriage of convenience any more, which complicates things.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I love it when a character discovers, to his or her own surprise, that they have that inner core of decency, Pam. And it often seems all the more noble, and shines all the brighter, in the a morally compromised, messy world from a morally compromised, messy character.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Jackie C. Horne said...

Two things about keeping a reader's sympathy when a character does something some readers may find unpalatable:

Including another character who accepts/forgives the first character, despite his/her negative actions, seems to help keep a reader's sympathy. Such a character can serve as a proxy for the reader, an invitation from the author showing the reader how to respond. Not all readers will accept such invitations, of course, but including a proxy can push a teetering reader in the hoped-for direction, sympathy-wise. In VIENNA WALTZ, both Malcolm and Susanne function this way when each forgives/sympathizes with the other after hearing about past behavior the other kept secret out of shame.

The reader sympathy factor also may depend on when in the narrative the writer chooses to reveal the negative action of a character. If the reader has, over the course of the story, forged a bond of sympathy/empathy with the character, hearing later in the story about something awful the character did in the past is easier to accept. I'm thinking here about Liz's Carlyle's NEVER ROMANCE A RAKE, whose hero has committed some pretty damning acts in the past, but by the time Carlyle reveals all the details about them, readers (at least this one!) has developed so much sympathy for Kieran that we don't condemn him.

All bets are off, though, if the negative action is happening in the real-time action of the narrative, as seemed to be the case in Tracy Grant's new novel...

1:17 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I can totally see Charles being pulled in two directions and having a one night stand with a past lover (and then beating himself up over it forever). And it would happen BECAUSE he's so fricken loyal, and if that was the comfort his ex-lover needed, I think he might be hard-pressed not to offer it.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Excellent points, Jackie I hadn't thought about another character who forgives the action acting as a proxy for the fader, but I think that's totally true. I didn't think about that in Vienna Waltz, but perhaps I was aware of it on a subconscious level because Malcolm and Suzanne's last actions are revealed through the other's POV And it's also true that once the reader has bonded with a character and seen them as a sympathetic person, it's much easier to forgive a past action when it is revealed. But as you say in Imperial Scandal the questionable action was in the present and there was no chance for another character to
forgive it, because no one else knows about it, and it in
fact occurs late in the book. All of which I think goes to why my editor thought it didn't work.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

You know, I can actually see that too, Iosbel. Except that his only ex-lover is dead by the time he marries Mel/Suzanne. But otherwise--yes, and I could see how it could make him realkze how complicated his feelings for s wife have become.

1:39 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Well then I guess it's out, LOL! I can't see him starting something new, just inhaling the ashes of something that is over.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I agree, Isobel--starting a new affair seems way out of character for him. Intimacy of any kind doesn't come easily to Charles/Malcolm.

10:14 PM  
Blogger happybkwrm said...

I can't stand it when a character plays the martyr. Heroines do this a lot - but so do heroes; in a different way. "My mommy was mean to me, so I have no choice but to drink and boink a lot of women. Oh, how unhappy I am, being rich, handsome and adored!"

8:53 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

So true, JMM. It's such a fine line writing angsty characters without having them wallow in self-pity.

9:39 PM  

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