No, People Won’t Like Your Book

I was browsing Twitter yesterday, and came across a post from someone I really admire.  They were complaining about romance arcs in mystery novels, and vice-versa. I looked at my fresh new fragile baby of a first novel, which has both mystery and romance arcs, and winced.  The rest of the conversation was a series of complaints that tore at every trope and element of my writing, and of books I enjoy reading. It was pretty devastating, since I haven’t quite developed the thick skin of authorship yet.

But then my partner gave me some words that completely shifted how I look at writing. “Even if you make the New York Times Bestseller list and sell millions of copies, more people will always dislike your book than will like it.”

Just to be clear, this wasn’t him downing my book in particular, which he thinks is the bee’s knees.  It was a general statistical statement.  People have very specific likes and dislikes.  Not everybody reads. Some people only read one genre, or are very particular about which books they like. Some people will dislike your main character.  Some people will think your ending stinks. Some people will hate your book because their pastor or co-worker find something offensive in it. Some people will hate on your books for the sole fact that it is popular. It is impossible that everyone will like it.

This isn’t meant to be depressing. It’s meant to be liberating. It’s a careful balancing act to decide whether to include something in your book that people find objectionable. If you’re looking to please everyone, you will inevitably fail. This is not meant to excuse racism, misogynism, or other bigotry that turns away readers en masse. But the bottom line is that you can’t actually write the mythical perfect book your anxiety tells you you need to write.  You only need to write the book you want to read.

Character Development: Asking, “Why?”

When I read a novel, I can sometimes tell when the author really struggled to get into their antagonist’s head. The antagonist is either a vague puppet moving to the convenience of the author, or a flat caricature of a human being. One of the most common questions I ask while reading these books is, “Why?” WHY does the villain want to kill/ruin/rule/cheat/thwart?

The problem with “why” is that it’s a question that’s almost never really answered. Humans are phenomenally good at making up stories in our heads about why we do things. These stories don’t always fit reality, because they’re based on incomplete information and unconscious motives. The most dramatic example of this comes from Neuropsychologist Michael Gazzaniga’s experiments with people whose brains had been divided in half. We normally process things we see and do on the left side of the body with the right side of the brain, and vice-versa. The brain then communicates across a bridge between the two sides (the corpus callosum). When the bridge is cut, the two sides stop communicating. If a person in a split-brain experiment sees the words “stand up” on their left side, it is only seen by the right hemisphere of the brain. They may stand up, but if asked why they stood up, they won’t know. That’s where a part of the left hemisphere steps in. It’s job is to serve as an “interpreter,” by coming up with explanations from insufficient information. The person may tell you they stood because they were cold, or because their legs ached. They’re not consciously lying; their brains are just filling in details.

We do this all the time. If you are asked why you like a particular book, you will probably be able to come up with an immediate answer, like, “I really liked the main character.”  But is that the whole truth, or just the interpreter talking? If you follow up with, “Why?” then you may get a little deeper.

“I liked that she was really tough.”


“Because it seems like women don’t always get to be tough in literature and I like that this book subverts that.”


“Because I like the idea of being tough and wish I was more like her, so it’s validating.”

…And so on…

Yes, it’s like having a conversation with a curious two-year-old in your head. But notice how the answer gets more specific and more personal as you dig? If there’s anything I like in my fictional character development, it’s specific and personal motives. So we can turn this idea on both your protagonists and antagonists. When you do, remember a few things:

  1.  Everyone thinks they’re the protagonist. They believe that what they’re doing is justified (regrettably or not). They think someone they hurt deserves it. They think they’re in the right. The more wrong the act, the harder they’ll work to justify it to themselves and maintain their self-image.
  2. Everyone cares about something or someone. Even if that someone is themselves and the something is their ego.  If a person really didn’t care, they’d curl up in a corner and not bathe or eat for weeks at a time. That’s how a lot of severe depression manifests. They wouldn’t go out of their way to sabotage their ex’s relationship or build a super-robot to destroy New York. That takes effort, and to put out effort, a person must first care about the results.
  3. Bad guys can have good motivations. Your villain might actually believe that, in the long run, his giant city-destroying robot will make the world a better place. Good guys can have bad motivations. It’s okay if, in addition to saving the city, your heroine is also driven just a little bit by petty revenge because the robot stepped on her car and she had just splurged on a custom sound system.

So why is your antagonist working to destroy their ex’s new relationship?

“Because she deserves it.”


“Because she hurt me, so I want to hurt her back.”


“Because being hurt makes me feel out of control and vulnerable.”


“Because I wasn’t the one leaving, so I was helpless to stop it. Being able to hurt her back gives me back my feelings of control and makes me feel strong/able to defend myself.”

At the core of most of these questions you’ll find emotions. Sure your bank robbers are after money, but does that money represent safety? Freedom? Validation? A lot of the reasons we come up for why we do things seem to be intended mostly for covering up the emotions we’re feeling, so keep going until you reach something really visceral and basic. That’s your character’s goal. They want to feel strong and in control. They want to feel safe.

Then ask yourself, “Do my character’s actions make sense as a way to achieve these goals?” Keep in mind that it can be a completely dysfunctional attempt to achieve those goals. But they do have to make sense according to the internal frame the character is operating under, however broken it might be. A person can be irrational, immature, self-destructive, and petty. But with a very few exceptions, they need to be internally consistent.


5 Things That Make Me Stop Reading

Let me start out by saying that this is an entirely subjective post. If anyone looks up their favorite book on Amazon or Goodreads, they’ll probably find a few one and two-star reviews, because everyone’s taste is different. So as a reader, I don’t claim that my opinions are at all universal.

That said, I’m a voracious reader, and a fairly forgiving one, I think. If your book has strong characters and moves along at a nice pace, I’ll probably ignore all kinds of things that might turn off other readers. But I do have some lines in the sand.

1. “I’m leaving you for your own good.”

This is a twisty way for the writer to say, “I don’t know how to create story tension after these characters to get together, but I don’t want one of them to look like a jerk.” But the thing is, there are really only two interpretations for this unfortunately common trope. The first interpretation is that one of the partners is taking agency away from the other and infantalizing them by saying they can’t be trusted to make good decisions for their own well-being (in which case, they’re a jerk). The second interpretation is that one of the partners is afraid and wants out of the relationship, and justifies it by lying to both themselves and their partner to appear more noble than they are (in which case, they’re a jerk). There is no real way to pull this trope off without someone being a jerk, and at that point, I stop rooting for the relationship altogether.

2. Token in Trouble

This is a fairly difficult one for some writers to navigate, because we don’t really receive any kind of education on social power dynamics if we don’t seek it out or experience it personally. But the basic premise is that you have a single minority character in your story (racial minority, LGBTQ, person with disability, etc., a.k.a. the “token”), and that character’s role seems is to die, be traumatized, or be placed in danger in order to motivate the non-minority main character. (This includes the main character defending the minority character from bigots as a shortcut to show they’re a “good guy”). It reduces the minority character to a prop, and is a form of objectification.

In comics, this became known as the “girl in the refrigerator” trope, where a girlfriend’s tragic death or trauma serves as the backstory for a male superhero. For LGBTQ characters in film, this trope is known as “bury your gays,” because LGBTQ characters in film and fiction are so often killed to forward the plot or motivate the cisgender, straight character.

The reason this is problematic is that there is so little representation of some groups in fiction, that even a single negative depiction has an outsized impact on how we think about those groups, and how readers in those groups think about themselves. Writers, please let your minority characters live, have a life and motivations outside of their identity (or the main character’s life). Maybe they can even have a happy ending or heroic moment. And if your only minority character turns out to be the bad guy, you need to seriously re-think your book and the message it sends to the world.

3. Mary Sue and Gary Stu

Generally, a main character is a main character because something interesting is happening to them. Otherwise, there’s no story, right?  In that respect, they’re special. But make me believe your character is a real person, and not just an embodiment of specialness. A real person isn’t perfect or good at everything they try to do. A real person doesn’t have every single person they interact with fall in love or lust with them. If your character’s only flaw is that they’re a little physically clumsy, they’re not relatable as a real person. Give them some real flaws, with room to grow as the story develops. Give them some platonic, or even indifferent relationships. Allow other characters to dislike them for reasons other than jealousy or romantic rejection.

On the flip side, let your bad guy have some positive traits other than killer abs and a pretty face, or attraction to the main character. Let them be people, too. Your story will be better for it.

4. Deus ex Machina

The general rule is that “convenient” things that hurt the character increase tension, and those that help the character decrease it. If the gods in your high fantasy novel swoop down and intervene in every life-or-death conflict in your book, we’re going to stop being concerned that your character is actually going to die. If the evidence just falls into your detective’s lap, we’ll think the case was too easy to solve, and not worth telling about.

This can go too far the other way, of course. If your character is nearly killed twice a book over ten books, it gets a little exhausting and we start to wonder about whether they really care if they live or not. Let them learn from their adventures, and one of the things they should be learning is caution and use of resources.

5. Cheap Stereotypes

The first bad review I ever left for a book involved a mumu-wearing fat character who was lazy, stupid, clumsy, and obsessed with food. Her love interest was played up for laughs, because the idea of a fat person having actual feelings was hilarious.

The second bad review had a single person of color in the entire book. It was an Asian woman who played the loyal family servant, was sneaky and untrustworthy, and turned out to be the villain.

These were books written in the last ten years, but the stereotypes belong very far in the past. The problem is that these kind of stereotypes are harmful to readers. Minority representation in fiction is already sparse, so stereotypical, negative portrayals that reinforce prejudice have an outsized impact. They affect how people think about these groups, and how these groups think about themselves.

While not everyone can afford a sensitivity reader, the Internet is a rich and easily accessible resource on stereotypes. Many marginalized people have put in time and effort into articles, blogs, and discussion forums on stereotypes, harmful language, and how they would like to be depicted. A quick google search for “how to write about XX characters” will give you at least enough to avoid putting your foot in your mouth. If you are writing a marginalized character whose identity you don’t share, however, put in the extra time to really get it right.

Why Should You Care?

In a phenomenal book, I might cringe at some of these and keep reading for a little while, with considerably reduced enjoyment. In a less than phenomenal book, I’ll just put it down. If it’s egregious enough, I’ll cross the unspoken line of mutual support for writers and leave a bad review. Is this fair? Maybe not. But every minute I take for reading is a minute I take from writing or other things I enjoy. So I choose to not waste that time.  And trust me, so do many other readers.

What’s your line in the sand? What makes you put a book down?