Characterization and Other Thoughts

My latest novel — Haze — has been out for about a month now, and sales are respectable, but not outstanding, and that’s not surprising, because Haze is a science fiction novel, and my fantasy novels have always sold better than my SF. Interestingly enough, though, in general, the major review sources, particularly those published outside the genre, have been far more favorable to my SF than to the fantasy.

Characterization is key to the success of most books, and one of the things I’ve observed over the years is the wide variation in reader and reviewer assessments of my ability to characterize — even when they’re talking about the same book;

For example, in looking at reviews of my novel Flash, I found the following from three different sources:

“…nonstop action, which, however, never sidelines good world-building and characterization…”

“…the relationships are wooden.”

“…tells of the close relationships between deVrai and his sister’s family…”

One of the reader reviews of Haze includes the following phrases… “agent/assassin has no depth… we learn Haze is honest/open…” Except that neither is the case. The protagonist, Keir Roget, reveals little emotionally in an overt sense, because he is aware that he lives in a world where every motion, every indication of feeling, is observed. There are many subtle indications of character and motivation, but few that are grand and overt, not if Roget wishes to survive. As for the planet Haze… this “open” society conceals a considerable amount, some of it rather enormous in scope, implication, and eventual consequences, through its apparent openness. In fact, what is “open,” both in Roget and in all the cultures depicted, is a misrepresentation because what is obvious overshadows what is not readily apparent.

From observations such as these, it seems fairly clear to me that people have a very different idea of what characterization is. My own belief is that any character reveals who he or she is through acts, words, and self-observations (which may be accurate or self-deluding, if not both). The issue of acts would seem to be self-evident, but it’s not, for several reasons. First, what a character does not do may be as revealing as what he does, but many readers key on acts, rather than on the omission of acts. Second, small acts may be more revealing than “large” acts. Third, the consistency of acts — or the lack thereof — also reveals character. The same three aspects also apply to what is said, or not said. In addition, character can be revealed by how others speak of and to them and how others interact with them… or fail to do so.

What this leads me to believe is that when I see a series of reviews, and different reviewers either praise or trash “characterization” in the same book, it’s often likely that those who are negative about a writer’s ability to characterize are either unwilling or unable to look at anything other than large acts and obvious statements. In addition, a significant percentage of such negative reader reviews tend to contain factual and technical errors, including citing the incorrect names of characters, suggesting a rapid and superficial reading. These factors suggest that obvious and broad-brush characterization is necessary to reach the widest possible audience. That doesn’t do much for nuance and subtlety, not that they’re exactly a priority for more than a few readers.