Carolyn J. Rose is the author of several novels, including Hemlock Lake, An Uncertain Refuge, A Place of Forgetting, and No Substitute for Murder. She penned two humorous cozy mysteries, The Big Grabowski and Sometimes a Great Commotion, with her husband, Mike Nettleton. Through a Yellow Wood, the sequel to Hemlock Lake, will be published in the late spring of 2012 and By the Sea of Regret, the sequel to An Uncertain Refuge, will emerge in the late fall.
She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers and is an active supporter of her local bookstore, Cover to Cover. Her interests are reading, gardening, and not cooking.
Carolyn will be giving away a copy of No Substitute for Murder to one lucky person who leaves a comment here before the end of Friday, May 18th (midnight Mountain Time). Be sure your e-mail contact information is in your profile or the body of your comment so we can find you if you’re the winner. The giveaway results will be announced here on Saturday, May 19th.
Recently, on the recommendation of a friend, I read a thriller by a bestselling author. Twenty pages in, I put it down for a day. The protagonist was so full of himself and his attitudes toward women were so counter to what I find admirable—or even barely acceptable—in a man, that I didn’t want to spend time with him. In fact, I hated his guts.
But, a lot of people had purchased this book and (presumably) read it. Many of them posted favorable reviews. As an exercise in persistence and broadening my literary horizons, I picked it up again and read on.
At fifty pages, I put the book down once more. I still didn’t like this guy. In fact, the more I learned about him, the less I wanted to be in the same hemisphere.
A day later, I picked up the story again, telling myself that perhaps he changed significantly as the plot unfolded. Character growth and development might be what the deeper story was about, and I’m always intrigued by the ways in which characters evolve.
Alternately slogging along and skipping chunks of narrative, I finished the book, still loathing the character, still longing to spot an illuminating back story incident that would provide enough information for me to understand, to empathize, to relate to some part of his humanness. There were interesting plot points and incidents, yes, but none that allowed me to connect with the character on a satisfying level. When I finished the book, it was with a sense of relief, with a feeling of having completed a distasteful task instead of a fascinating journey.
The process, however, started me thinking about my own characters, their functions in the stories, and whether readers would try to understand and engage with them.
Ronny Miller from Hemlock Lake is a man losing control and seething with rage. Many of us know people like that. Do we like them? Usually not, unless we’re the same way. It’s hard to like Ronny, but his actions illuminate the protagonist and others because they react to him and define themselves through those reactions.
I definitely don’t like April from A Place of Forgetting. She’s self-centered and possibly a sociopath. But she sets the plot in motion and creates all kinds of conflict for Liz Roark. Without her, Liz would wallow in self-pity and never leave home, meet Delia, and grow up. To my delight, a few readers wrote to tell me they thought I’d done a good job of creating April, that they couldn’t stand her, and that they kept hoping for her to get what was coming to her.
Evie’s son in An Uncertain Refuge is an unpleasant one-dimensional person, but he’s a catalyst for events in the second half of the book. He’ll reappear in the sequel, By the Sea of Regret (due out late in the fall), and I’ll do more to explain him through back story and give him the opportunity to change.
Those three are secondary characters and have definite purposes. My intention was that most readers wouldn’t like them.
But it turns out that a few of my main characters, ones I intended to be likable, aren’t always. There were moments when I admit that I wanted to strangle Kate Dalton, the protagonist of An Uncertain Refuge. She made a number of decisions ranging from stupid to ill-considered to downright risky. If she had paused to think again, however, the story might have been over before the end of the first chapter. Beyond that, reviewers have made the point that she spends too much time blaming her parents for the shape of her life.
And some readers have told me that they didn’t like Liz, the protagonist of A Place of Forgetting. They felt she was too much of a baby, even given that she was the only child of a protective father and the book is set in 1966.
But back to that character I didn’t like and couldn’t engage with. Because a friend had recommended the book so highly, I worried over my reaction for weeks, assuming the flaw was in me. But then I gave myself permission to not like him.
Not every book is for every reader. And not every character is, either. We all have different experiences before we pick up a book, and we carry those with us as we read. That baggage colors our perceptions and determines how we relate to characters and their actions.
And that’s what makes reading—and writing—such an adventure.
Carolyn, thanks so much for joining us here today. In my own writing, I sometimes find the unlikeable characters I create are the ones I enjoy writing about the most. When they outshine the main character, however, I know I have a problem.
Don’t forget to leave a comment here before the end of Friday, May 18th (midnight Mountain Time), if you want to enter Carolyn’s giveaway for a copy of No Substitute for Murder.