My first fantasy, The Stone War, is about love of place (and what happens when you privilege love of place over the love of the people around you). And one reviewer couldn’t get past the fact of that. Reading between the lines, I think this person was not the sort to whom place is important (“Oh, I can live anywhere. One place is pretty much like another”). The idea of a whole book centered around love of place was just…alien to him. I doubt very much that anything I could have done would have improved the reading experience for him. Our emotional responses were completely out of sync.
One of the more uncomfortable half hours I have spent in a writers’ workshop involved two very sincere people who had different emotional responses to a specific, harrowing, situation in a story. The unacknowledged heffalump in the room was that the story was based on something that had happened to the author, and that the same thing, give or take, had happened to the critiquer in question. Each one had experienced the event in his/her own way. Neither one could accept the legitimacy of the other’s response.*
It’s possible to create a character, put her through several sorts of hell, and have a reader drop out because that’s not how she would react. Or did react in a similar situation. And (I hate this, but it’s true) if you’ve written the character, the situation, and the reaction as well as you can, there may not be much you can do to get that reader back into the work. Trying to write a sort of every person’s reaction to a traumatic event not only is unlikely to work, it’s likely to dilute the emotional resonance of the story. What’s a writer to do?
First, know that you can’t please everyone. Write the scene, or the story, or the book, as truly as you can. (This sounds a little to-thine-own-self-be-true-ish, but really, if you’re not writing a scene that works for you, you damned sure are not going to please everyone else.) Second: as long as your character is not living in a vacuum, there will be people around them to react to their reaction. If you feel it’s important to admit other points of view, use your other characters to do it: “Honestly, Hamlet is so contained. If that happened to me, I’d be hospitalized by now.” It’s not exactly subtle, but it does leave the door open to the world of other reactions out there.
Like many people who wander through these here parts, I love Jane Austen’s work, each book for different reasons. Part of what I love and admire in Sense and Sensibility is that the two elder Miss Dashwoods are young women of extraordinarily different temperaments. Elinor, the elder, is outwardly calm and measured; her sister Marianne sees her as stolid and cold. Marianne, on the other hand, is demonstrative and romantic, with a spontaneous enthusiasm that drives her more guarded sister a little nuts. Elinor, whose sensible demeanor hides a rich emotional life, has some sympathy and more patience for her sister, even when Marianne’s behavior embarrasses and worries her. But Marianne can’t reciprocate. She can’t believe that everyone–or at least her sister–would not respond in the way she would. She scolds Elinor for her restraint, and finally Elinor snaps.
“What do you know of my heart? What do you know of anything but your own suffering. For weeks, Marianne, I’ve had this pressing on me without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature. It was forced on me by the very person whose prior claims ruined all my hope. I have endured her exultations again and again whilst knowing myself to be divided from Edward forever. Believe me, Marianne, had I not been bound to silence I could have provided proof enough of a broken heart, even for you.”
You have two women, both heartbroken, not only dealing with the hurt that life has dealt them, but with the emotional requirement to somehow grieve, or rail, or be heartbroken in a way that the other understands. And that’s interesting. In the end, Marianne comes to be able to appreciate her sister’s less demonstrative manner; for Austen that’s part of the happy ending.
In real life I’m conflict-averse. But when writing, using my characters’ expectations as well as their reactions can lead me, and my reader, into places I might not otherwise have gone. I can’t help but think that’s a good thing, but of course, your mileage may vary.
*yes, I know I’m being very vague here. The names, events, and genders have been changed to protect the parties involved.