When Characters Betray Your Trust
I read a trilogy this weekend, which I’m not going to name because, although I liked the first book very much, by the third I was so wholly disenchanted that I skipped the last thirty pages and just flipped to the end to find out what happened and then closed the book with an unhappy sigh. The trilogy was a ménage romance with wonderfully flawed characters, and it would normally have been right up my alley, but these books left me feeling hugely let down and betrayed.
In thinking through why I was so dissatisfied at the end, I realized it was because the characters betrayed not only each other but also the reader. The more I thought about it, the more I realized this is not the first time I’ve felt this way at the end of a book (or a series). The last time was a mystery novel, so the issue is not isolated to a particular genre.
How does a character betray a reader? By putting themselves in a position of authority early in the novel, and then acting in ways contrary to that authority not once but several times throughout the course of the novel, until the reader no longer feels they are trustworthy. I haven’t thought before about the relationship of trust a reader places in characters, particularly characters in positions of authority, to lead the reader through the story. But it’s definitely there, and when the reader is betrayed over and over again by characters who act contrary to their defining characteristics, the reader is justified in giving up on them.
Going back to the romance series for a concrete example, one of the male heroes is set up as a knowledgeable dominant at the beginning of the series. His heart has been broken by a previous relationship, but he supposedly knows what he’s doing in caring for a submissive. In the first book, he’s the submissive heroine’s rock and security blanket as she works through her many issues. In the second book, the betrayals begin. First, after promising he’ll protect the heroine, he allows her security to be compromised again and again. Second, he fails to set or enforce effective rules to keep her healthy, so at best he’s an incompetent dominant and at worst, he’s just negligent. By the third book, the third partner in the ménage makes a monumental screw-up, completely triggering the poor heroine’s abandonment issues, and instead of recognizing the heroine’s tremendous hurt and helping her work through it, the “dominant” decides this is the best time to introduce her into the world of kink and collar her as his submissive. A monumentally dubious decision for an “experienced dominant.” To compound this idiocy, in retaliation for the heroine’s bad behavior, he then takes her collar away (all in the space of a weekend), triggering the heroine’s abandonment issues all over again. At this point, I couldn’t believe anything the “dominant” did or said, so their eventual reconciliation felt totally flat and forced. There wasn’t any satisfaction in the “happy ending” because I’d lost faith in the hero. It wasn’t that the story broke my willing suspension of disbelief, it’s that I honestly didn’t want the heroine to end up with the hero because he’s a sucky dominant who needs to go back to dominant school and not be in any relationship until he learns his a** from his elbow. That’s not a character who deserves happily ever after.
Comparing the romance “hero” (and I use the term loosely because I think it’s important for heroes to behave heroically at some point, even if their heroism is something as small as putting the heroine’s needs first) to the detective from the mystery novel that left me feeling the same way, I can see the same pattern of betrayals of the reader’s trust. The detective is set up early in the story as having military/tactical experience. As he investigates the murders that form the central mystery, he has a series of physical encounters in which he comes off on the losing end, and then sets a trap with his supposed tactical knowledge that fails to actually catch the bad guy. While I’m sure this was all intended to heighten tension, it actually undermined my belief in the detective’s abilities. The resolution with the bad guy’s death felt more accidental than the culmination of any “cunning plan,” and while I don’t need all mystery heroes to be Poirot, making them Baldrick (apparently unintentionally) neither leaves me feeling satisfied at the end of the story, nor does it induce me to read the next book in the series.
Sadly, I don’t think either the romance series or the mystery novel needed to be that disappointing. Characters are almost always redeemable, and the authors clearly wanted to redeem these characters, because the romance author gave the idiot dominant his happy ending, and the mystery writer let the detective “win” in the sense that the bad guy was revealed and then disposed of. If the stories were structured slightly differently, with the “heroes” making a couple of good decisions before the climax, that might have restored my faith as a reader and made the endings satisfactory.
A learning point to keep in mind as I write my own flawed, authoritative characters.
(Image used under licence.)