Rosanne Dingli

Rosanne Dingli

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Guest blogger - Brian Kavanagh

Brian Kavanagh
It is my pleasure today to introduce Brian Kavanagh, an Australian writer who lives and works in Melbourne. Author of the well-known Belinda Lawrence series of mysteries, including A Canterbury Crime, he is also involved in film and television. His observations about characters in books - and what characters reviewers can be - are at once thought-provoking and amusing.

I recently stumbled across a review of a book of mine on a blog site. The book is Capable of Murder, the first in my mystery series featuring a young Australian woman who is living in the UK. The review was not favourable although the reviewer made it clear that the type of mystery (cosy) was not her favourite genre and she acknowledged that others should not be put off by her comments. The fact it was a so-so review didn’t concern me; what I found interesting is that the reviewer, a woman, didn’t respond to Belinda, the central character because she “drove me crazy in the way she took chances and trusted people she didn't even know. I never understand why such women walk into situations that any normal thinking person would run a mile from.”

Again from the reviewer; “she has an encounter with a stranger, and he accidentally spills coffee on her. I thought her response was cruel and uncalled for: ‘You clumsy oaf, look what you've done.’ And when he tries to remedy the mess, she says: ‘Stop that. You're making it worse. Why did you have to sit next to me, when you had the whole train to choose from?’ Not the best introduction to a new heroine, is it?” And when Belinda moves into the house where she found her aunt’s body; “She moves in, which I would never do.”

I mention these comments because I find it fascinating that a reader should impose her own standards on a fictional character to the point of rejecting her and the book.

Earlier I had a similar response from a female reader who was extremely critical of another character, Hazel Whitby, a middle-aged woman who is slightly eccentric and has a taste for men and gin. A larger than life creation and meant to supply some humour in the books. Yet I was taken to task by the reader for showing women in a bad light. So again, the reader’s personal values are imposed, although in this case, I suspect Hazel’s behaviour was too close to the bone for that reader,

All of which makes me wonder just how ‘real’, fictional characters become for readers. Are the readers (1) standing outside and watching characters as one would study a group of animals or (2) do the fictional creations become so real that they identify with them and take umbrage when they go against the reader’s code of ethics?  I suppose that depends on the writing and, if well done, presumably (2) is the case. But again, why impose a way of behaving on fictional beings?

For instance, would they object to Madame Bovary? Or do they reserve judgement on contemporary personalities? If Becky Sharp hadn’t taken chances and trusted people she didn't even know or walked into situations that any normal thinking person would run a mile from, where would that leave Thackeray?

Surely authors create individual characters with human imperfections, and part of the art of writing is to use these for conflict or the resolution of emotions. So without a character entering into dangerous situations or emotional affairs of the heart, or even of plain lust, certain genres would be dull indeed.
All books are fairy-tales but like the fairy-tales of childhood they contain guidelines and morals which we absorb, be they ‘literary fiction’ or a humble cosy mystery.

Thank you, Brian! 

A lot of food for thought: the fictional portrayal of ethics, morals or just plain conduct seems to become a confronting imposition for some. Do you feel readers take characters in a book too seriously? Do you feel they come alive for you, and become similar to 'real' people in your mind? 

Is it possible readers feel that characters reflect the morals, attitudes and personality of their author?

If you are an author, how much thought do you give to the morals and behaviour of your characters?  

Leave a comment - your opinion is valuable.


  1. This is an interesting post, Brian, and brings to light that tenuous relationship between fiction and 'reality'. Of course fiction is about deeper truths and character flaws are inherent in the process. It sometimes hurts, as an author, to put characters through their inevitable trials by fire, but that's what good fiction is all about, and working through flaws and misfortune is part of that. I do think that sometimes readers (bless them - at least their reading - better to criticise than to ignore I think!) read fiction with too much of an eye on whether this 'happened' or what it's conveying about the characters rather than looking for the deeper meaning.

  2. Yes,Magdalena. Well said. It brings to mind my belief drawn from my years making films, that a script writer is the only person who ever really sees the film as he/she wrote it. Each viewer will see their own version, albeit after filtering through the filmmaking process.

  3. Yes - I am familiar with your theory from reading your work elsewhere, Brian - and it is true. Perhaps even more true for novels, where the reader does all their own mental imaging. The stories and characters we conceive are seen differently by each individual reader, and the effect of that is something impossible to predict or gauge. Reviewers are, after all, simply readers who choose to make their opinion public.

  4. I concur. I would even say a similar phenomenon can be observed in the reception of some of my non-fiction articles. When I present a detailed exposition of how I view an aspect of life some readers comment with interest and even approval. Others may be quite caustic, condemning me personally for having characteristics they infer from my writing -- even when I don't in fact possess them. In this context I, the writer, am similar to a fictional character and am seen in different ways by different readers. It makes the writing life very interesting!

  5. What an interesting 'shoot the messenger' slant. Non-fiction commentators, journalists, pundits... they are sitting ducks for the public to hang their opinions on. Writing about politics, to take one example, might pin a leaning in some readers' minds, even if it is a mere comment the writer makes, and not a declaration of personal choice. Or writing a biography, perhaps, might say to some readers that the biographer condones the subject's life and antics.

  6. Anybody can call themselves a reviewer, Brian. Unless your review was in the Times Literary Supplement or the New Yorker, I wouldn't worry! I think we are all complex and contradictory, and showing more than one side of a character adds to depth. Margaret Sutherland

  7. Margaret, thanks. I wasn't worried because I agree with you. I just found it fascinating that the reviewer reacted so badly to perceived bad behaviour of a fictional character. On the down side, I checked back on her website and it seems that quite a few responses indicate that they will take her word for it and won't bother to buy the book. Time for the wax doll and needles I think. :-)