Divisive Characters

One of the things that surprised me when I had friends read Totality: The Militiaman was how divisive a particular character was. I hadn’t anticipated it and I had to spend time figuring out how I felt about it.

That character was Linda Pearson. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know she is William Pearson’s ex-wife. (And if you haven’t, rest assured that that is no kind of spoiler!)┬áHer inclusion in the story was always interesting to me because she didn’t tend to fit into the typical expectations of a sci-fi novel. A nominally heroic protagonist like William would usually be expected to remain single, never tied down to anyone, except perhaps at the very end of his journey as a reward for all of his suffering and tribulation. But to have an ex-wife–and one who was still a very active part of his life–offered what I thought was a very intriguing dynamic, and a good foil for his character.

An evident facet of that dynamic is that she has often known what’s best for William better than he does. She’s also playful and speaks her mind. When he throws himself into despair and self-doubt, she’s the one always trying to drag him out. It’s certainly fair to say she expends a lot of emotional labor on his behalf, which he hardly appreciates. One could ask why she even bothers, and this seems to be a key element of what makes her divisive.

I have had readers tell me that they really appreciated her personality–that she clearly still loves William but is not simply his appendage. She is her own person with her own motives and desires, it just so happens that one of her desires is continuing to look after him, whether he likes it or not. Others found her behavior obnoxious and suffocating, especially if she reminded them of people they knew in their own lives. Those that didn’t like her didn’t seem to simply dislike her, but actively despised her, as a character. Conversely, people who enjoyed her character expressed that they liked her a lot and want to see more of her in future books. (I’m not telling…)

I didn’t know what to make of these vastly different reactions. I thought that perhaps I had failed as a writer to make her a clear, well-drawn character. After reflection, though, I realized that the problem was that there wasn’t a problem. She provokes disparate reactions precisely because people can see themselves or others they know, in her character. And obviously, different people have different reactions to various sorts of personalities and styles. It would have been worse if people simply had no reaction at all.

So, I’ve come to enjoy and accept that Linda is a character who prompts strong feelings in readers, both positive and negative. As the writer behind her characterization, I much more like than dislike her, though I can kind of understand the reasons why people might dislike her. (Personally, I think William has been a huge jerk to her, but then I’m working with more information.)

I can only hope that future books and more characters will stoke the passions of readers, too! Making people feel something is a big part of why I do this, and why I love hearing from readers.