Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Writer Versus the Reader

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

It occurs to me that the writer and the reader are often at odds. This may seem surprising since both would appear to want the same thing—a great plot, colorful characters, fantastic settings, emotions that bleed through the page, etc. Where they disagree, however, is on how to get there. 

Consider the relationship between the reader and the main character. Writers expend a lot of energy getting the reader to bond with these characters, with the expectation the reader will want to cheer for them and root for a happy ending. But then what does the writer do? He/she has the character do something that makes the reader want to scream, “No, you idiot! That’s the wrong choice!” 

We’ve all read books/seen movies where the guy decides not to ask the girl out on a date because of his fear that she’ll say no, despite it being patently obvious to the rest of us she’s desperately in love with him. Or the characters whose story-worthy problem would be solved if only they had made the obvious choice in the first place. Or the superhero who could pulverize the bad guy in the first quarter of the book if only they’d get off their butt and act. Arg!!! 

Of course, the writer does this for a reason. Stories are about the hero’s journey, not just the final outcome. Otherwise books would end way too soon and the reader wouldn’t receive the appropriate dopamine rush. Of course, once they’ve finished the story, readers will tell themselves they’re happy the character took the wrong path, because it made the final victory sweeter, but who do they think they’re fooling? Those readers spent most of the book desperately wanting to reach into the book and wring the character’s neck. 

And what about when the writer keeps throwing challenge after challenger at the character. The main reason readers turn the page is because they want to see the character they’ve bonded with succeed in the end. But every time the writer throws in a new challenge, the reader has to wait that much longer for gratification. After a while, they just want the writer to stop tossing in obstacles and let the character win. “But the dopamine rush will be greater if I delay the end as long as possible,” the writer calmly explains. To which the reader screams, “I don’t care. I want my happily-ever-after now, even if I have to skip to the end of the book.” 

So it all comes down to a balancing act. As a writer, it’s your job to frustrate your reader as much as you can for as long as you can, without the book being hurled across the room in frustration. And the reader’s job is to appreciate the journey and keep reading to the end, no matter how much they want to scream at the character/author during the first three quarters of the story. 

What book has made you scream the most?



  1. We need our dopamine rush.
    The balance is to let the character beat some of those challenges. Just not all.
    I think having the character make bad and stupid choices repeatedly is a requirement for all horror films.

  2. One of the things that makes the Harry Potter novels work, I think, is that there's a good mix of small successes along the way. Some monster's on the loose, and Harry just got detention with Snape, but then he wins the Quidditch match. Those small successes keep the reader going up until the big success at the end.

  3. I gave up on reading the Clockwork Angel series after book 2, when her stupid choices regarding the love triangle got on my nerves SO BADLY I didn't care who Tessa ended up with or what happened to her. UGH!

  4. I think I've only wanted to chuck a book across the room once, but didn't do so because it might have broken my kindle. I don't think my reasons were the same as the ones you listed though. Mostly it was me shouting at the character, "Freakin' A! Can you be any more stupid?" and "WILL YOU PLEASE STOP WHINING?!" Suffice to say, I didn't like the characters...