Reviews That Make My Eyes Roll: Getting Mad at Imperfect Characters

How the whale SHOULD have behaved.
Reviews can be helpful. In fact, I have found that the "better" books (i.e. books that I personally think are well-written) inspire better reviews. (Yeah, yeah.) By that, I don't (automatically) mean reviews that agree with me. I mean reviews that are thoughtful and intelligent, well-written and free of multiple grammar errors. Such reviews I trust. To inspire such thought-out, considerate responses, the book must be okay!

In comparison, I pause over a book when it is followed by a review like this:
"The character feels guilt about his spouse's death--I wish people understood that they don't need to blame themselves for things that aren't their fault!"
Ah--but they do . . .

Such a review is not necessarily the writer's fault. There are cases where writers unfairly expect readers to understand a character without establishing the background that would justify that understanding.

In this case, however, I'm talking about reviewers who are offended that a character in a book behaves and thinks in ways that they, the reviewers, personally think people shouldn't behave or think--which makes me wonder what those reviewers read. Okay, yes, I dislike dystopia novels and never read them. However, if I only read books where characters did and said things that I think people should do or say . . . I'd never read anything.


When Frodo accuses Sam of betraying him, am I seriously supposed to stop reading or watching because That's SO wrong! Doesn't he know how great Sam is? How could he be so MEAN?!
Is Frodo wrong in his accusation? Absolutely! Is he currently under the sway of the ring? Yes. Is his attack on Sam an example of the ring's terrible power? Yes. Is Frodo's accusation a way for the reader/viewer to see the terrible toll the ring is having on an otherwise good and sweet man? Yes.
For non-fantasy lovers, let's examine Elizabeth from Pride & Prejudice. She angrily accuses Darcy of hurting her sister.
Did Darcy hurt her sister? Yes. Did Darcy do it intentionally? Eh, kinda sortof but not really. Is Elizabeth overreacting? Maybe. Does Elizabeth use Darcy's actions in this one case to create an over-arcing narrative about him and refuse to see his side? Yes. Is she being unfair? In a way. Did Darcy bring this on himself? Yes.
If Darcy's behavior was too egregious, I would have a tough time with him and Elizabeth getting together at all. But it's not. What I find weird--puzzling, bemusing, STRANGE--is when reviewers aren't upset because Elizabeth had the wrong idea and then got over it but are upset that someone would behave like Elizabeth in the first place. (Doesn't she know how great Darcy is? Why can't she understand?!)

Um, character arc, anyone? Growth? Change? Improvement?

In a way, these reactions are a testament to a good writer (I suppose). The characters are so real, the readers react to them as they would to real people: Oooh, it so bugs me when people act like that!

Still, such reviews give me pause, as in, Um, are crazy people reading this book? 

I take a deep breath and read a different review.


Joe said...

Max shouldn't have said "I'LL EAT YOU UP!"

But then the book would have ended at page 3.

FreeLiveFree said...

The reviews that get me are the ones that are written by someone who seems to enjoy criticizing the book too much. Sometimes they are offended by "micro-aggression." More common though are the ones who think disdaining a work is showing "sophistication." The classic example is the person who looks down on all science fiction, but I've seen it within the SF genre as well.

Katherine Woodbury said...

Regarding children's books, it kind of throws most of Dr. Seuss out the window. Okay, those books are creepy. But still . . .

Katherine Woodbury said...

There are also those characters who are absolutely beloved precisely because they are rotten (and then redeem themselves): Mary from The Secret Garden; Edmund from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Many of us, including me, consider Edmund the true hero of those books!

FreeLiveFree said...

What annoys me is when characters faults aren't even acknowledge. Despite how he has been romanticized, Darcy's faults are acknowledge (which you pointed out in the posting.) Lizzy's faults are also acknowledge like how she was too swift to judge Darcy (though she had her reasons.) It's characters that are treated as not having their faults that gets me.

In the character Mabel in the cartoon series Gravity Falls behaves quite selfishly, but she's actually called a saint by one of the characters in the show. There is no real acknowledgement (though there are half-hearted ones) and no real character development. There's not even a reckoning for it even though she's partially responsible for almost causing the friggin' Apocalypse in the last few episodes.