Do Characters Need to Be Relatable?

The other day I heard someone begin an analysis of Shakespeare with the statement, “I really relate to Macbeth.”  The implication was that, in order to enjoy Macbeth, in order to understand Macbeth, the audience must be able to envision themselves in the place of Macbeth.  It is not enough to observe his temptation and his fall as an outsider.  One must, somehow, also imagine themselves as able to fall prey to supernatural beings and then commit regicide.  Only then can they truly enter into the play.

Shakespeare, however, almost certainly did not imagine that his audience members would “relate” to Macbeth (and one really hopes that audience members won’t).  Only in recent years do readers seem to need to relate to a protagonist in order to enjoy a story.  And only in recent years has relatability seem to have become one of the defining factors–if not the defining factor–in whether readers consider a book worth reading.  This trend, however, seems to contradict one of the main reasons many people enjoy reading–to meet and spend time with characters who are not like them.

Many of the stories I enjoy do not contain any characters I could plausibly say I relate to.  Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, are full of bold heroes, dastardly villains, and bold and clever women.  I don’t relate to Henry V, Richard III, or Paulina.  Yet their plays are some of my favorites.  L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables features a spunky red-headed heroine who talks a little too much and imagines magic in the world around her.  I don’t consider myself spunky and I had trouble believing in fairies even as a child.  Yet I still adore Anne–partly because she is someone I will never be.  But my feelings of not relating extend even to contemporary works.  Like many people, I love Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows.  But do I relate to a sharpshooter with a gambling addiction, an acrobat who can make herself disappear, or a gang leader who can kill without mercy?  Certainly not.  I find that I can enter imaginatively enter into a story even if I could never envision myself as one of the characters.

Relatability can be an engaging trait in a character. I myself have spoken positively  of characters I found relatable.  But good stories do not necessarily need relatable characters and readers can find themselves drawn to and immersed in tales with characters who are nothing like them at all.  And that’s part of the beauty of reading.

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Do You Hype Books That You Haven’t Read?

Do You Hype Books You Haven't Read?

Amber Elise (@dulivre) asked on Twitter a couple weeks ago what bloggers thought would change about the way they blogged if they didn’t get ARCs (and wrote a post on her blog about what her own blogging would like like, which you can read here.)  I actually do not receive a lot of ARCs, and the ones I do are often from giveaways or other sources where I’m not necessarily “obligated” to turn around a review by a certain time.  However, I do hear about upcoming books from other bloggers who have received ARCs, so if bloggers in general did not get ARCs, I think my reading habits or knowledge of the market might change, not so much my actual blogging habits.

However, the question led me to realize that I also see bloggers hype a lot of books that they personally do not have ARCs of.  Sometimes other bloggers have ARCs, so maybe the people hyping these books are going off positive reviews.  But sometimes the hype comes from the fact that the blogger thinks the author’s previous books were good, so their new one must be, too.  Or sometimes it’s a debut, and the hypers just think the premise sounds cool or the author is friendly or good at connecting with readers on Twitter or something.  In these cases, people have not read the book and know very little about it, but they are still promoting it–often very enthusiastically, on multiple platforms, even encouraging people to preorder or purchase the book.

Organic hype like this is great for authors and one of the reasons publishers do work with bloggers.  However, my own recent experiences with two books I was extremely excited about this year have led me to question how much I hype books I haven’t read what the consequences of that might be.

Two of my most anticipated books for 2019 were The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi (review here) and Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte (review scheduled).  Both ended up being two star reads for me, The Gilded Wolves because of confusing world building and flat characters, Four Dead Queens because of absurd world building, a flat romance, and bad plotting.

My personal brand of “hyping” books I haven’t read yet mainly involves saying “I am really excited about this book” or writing lists of the books I am most anticipating, but when I reflect on the fact that two of the books I was most looking forward to are likely to end up on my list of “worst books I read in 2019” now that I have read them, it’s awkward.  And I wonder what I would have done if I had hyped them more enthusiastically, had pushed other people to read them or to buy them.  Would I just be painfully silent about my change of opinion?  Would I feel obliged to issue some sort of formal statement explaining my change of opinion?  I don’t know.

My general rule of thumb is to try not to speak authoritatively on texts I have not actually read in full, whether to say they’re good or they’re bad, and I think that has served me well here.  Saying I was looking forward to these books and wanted to read them was perfectly fair, but I’d be in a bind  if I’d been saying how fabulous they were before I’d read them…since I don’t think they are worth recommending now that I have read them.  For me, it’s a good reminder to stick to my rule and always read a text before passing judgement on it.  Even if it’s a good judgement, I’m a reader, not a marketer, and I want to recommend books I personally like, not recommend books just to “help out authors.”

What do you think? Do you hype books you haven’t read yet?  Have you ever regretted hyping a book you later read and hated?  What did you do?

Briana

In Defense of Flawed Characters

Flawed characters get their fair share of criticism.  Sometimes, readers seem to expect or hope that characters will perfectly model their own values.  That they will be kind, caring, intelligent, and aware in precisely the same way the reader themselves would like to be.  When characters fail to meet these expectations, disappointment and anger can ensue.  But people in real life are varied and it makes sense that characters will be varied, too.  It makes sense that sometimes they will make poor decisions, that sometimes they will act or speak out of fear, selfishness, or ignorance.  And that, as a result, yes, we readers will sometimes disapprove of what they have done.  Even so, flawed characters are valuable–and not only because they can add drama or excitement to a story.  Flawed characters are valuable because they can give us hope that we can change.

When I speak of a “flawed” character, I do not mean the villain of the story.  Voldermort is undeniably flawed, as are Sauron and the White Witch or any number of the criminals superheroes routinely fight.  These types of characters are typically meant to be understood as evil or at least as representing a type of evil that must be overcome.  Sometimes they are made more complex and may experience character arcs that result in repentance or redemption.  But readers generally know that these characters are meant to be villains and they do not typically relate to them or expect more from their behavior.

In contrast, a “flawed” character is usually a character readers do not immediately perceive as evil and whom they may perceive as relatable.  They are “normal” people who typically mean well (or at least do not mean to cause active harm), but who make decisions that readers may perceive as wrong.  They may say something insensitive, hurt a friend, lie to someone, or believe things readers think are harmful or immoral.  For example, flawed characters might include Boromir from The Lord of the Rings, Gene from A Separate Peace, or any number of superheroes who lie to their friends and families.  They seem like kind of average people, maybe even like really good people–but they are not perfect.

Because these types of characters are not framed as the villain, readers tend to expect moral behavior from them.  This is especially true of protagonists, who are often framed as characters readers are supposed to sympathize with.  Due to this sympathy, readers may perceive the protagonists as potential role models, characters whose beliefs and actions could be emulated in the real world.  As a result, they worry when characters fail to have codes of behavior that align with their own values.  They worry that less informed readers will think lying or stealing or saying insensitive things is acceptable.  They worry that readers will see something problematic and believe it is okay.

Most readers, of course, are a little savvier than that and can distinguish fiction from reality. And they are not necessarily compelled to say or do something simply because someone else said or did it.  I do not believe we need to write fiction where people only do and say socially acceptable things, as a way to inculcate correct values in readers.  However, more than that, I believe we need flawed characters because they remind us of our own humanity.  No one is perfect.  At one time or another, we have all failed to live up to our own values, perhaps out of fear or selfishness or ignorance.  And, in those moments, we probably all hoped that we would be granted forgiveness and a second chance.  We wanted to believe we could do better, if someone would help us try.

Upstanding characters who do no wrong can be very attractive and even inspiring.  But flawed characters are perhaps a more accurate representation of what most of us are from day to day.  We are people who mean well (or at least who mean no active harm) who sometimes end up doing or saying things we regret.  Seeing that in literature reminds us we are not alone.  We are all struggling to be better, together.  And there is hope.  Forgiveness is possible.  Change is possible.  We won’t always be the person who made that mistake.  We won’t always be ostracized as the person who made a mistake.

Sometimes the world can seem very dark. Sometimes it can seem like we’re fighting a losing battle. But flawed characters remind us that people aren’t black-and-white.  And no one’s destiny is set in stone.  We can be better.  I choose to believe we will be better.

4 Reasons I Rarely Participate in Blog Tours

blog tours

1. Bloggers are asked to commit to a blog tour without having read the book.

This means that at the point I have to commit to posting something for a blog tour, I think and hope I will enjoy the book in question, but I have no guarantee I will.  And if I don’t actually like the book, I’m left looking flaky and trying to back out of the tour, or I’m stuck providing promotional content for a book I might not actually recommend.

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2. Some blog tours have really tight turnarounds.

Tight turnarounds for some blog tours contribute to the fact that I may not be able to pull out of the blog tour if I don’t like the book because the organizer will not have time to find another blogger.  Tight deadlines also put pressure on me when I am doing a service entirely for free. I once agreed to a blog tour where the publisher sent a digital ARC on Friday afternoon and asked me to send author interview questions by the end of the weekend, essentially giving me only two days to read the book and come up with thoughtful questions.

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3. Publisher and author provided content is hit-or-miss.

Some blog tours come with a whole package of information, while others kind of leave bloggers scrambling to get graphics, find an author bio, etc.

Also, if you are posting author-provided content like an interview or guest post, the fact is that some authors put more effort into this than others. I once had an author guest post topic that was to the effect of “ways to survive a desert island” (I’m making this up because I’m not actually trying to name or insult the author here) and got back a list of five items that had no explanation. The author-provided content was less than 40 words.  It was not particularly interesting or useful to readers and was not the type of quality content Krysta and I usually try to post.

I have also been sent content I am supposed to post the day before it is supposed to go live. This is stressful to me because, again, this is a hobby and I have other things in life that take priority over formatting blog posts, and I may not be able to put the content up when the author or publisher wants if they do not get it to me in a timely manner.

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4. I get practically nothing out of participating in blog tours.

Blog tours often come with a lot of stress and planning for me, but I don’t personally get any benefit out of it.  A lot of blog tours are moving to e-ARCs, so I don’t even get a “free copy of the book;” I’m actually reading a PDF of the book on my laptop, which I do not really enjoy.

I also have to admit that blog tours tend to get less traffic and less interaction than other posts on the blog.  Since Krysta and I together have managed to post practically every single day on the blog for the past two years that we’ve been blogging, I don’t need these types of posts to add content to the blog.

I know a lot of people see their purpose as bloggers as being “support authors,” and I do like to support authors, but I admit I blog primarily for myself and for other readers. Being given a strict two-day deadline to read a book and then post specific content that may or may not be engaging and that will not contribute to my blog stats is not really a super-fun deal for me.

What is your experience with blog tours? Do you like participating in them? Do you like reading them?

Briana

A Curse So Dark and Lonely Book Discussion: Would People Really Believe in the Existence of a Made-Up Country?

A Curse So Dark and Lonely Discussion on Made-Up Countries

Spoiler warning for A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer. I think the details discussed are relatively minor (I’m not giving away major plot points, twists, the ending, etc.), but if you like to know practically nothing about a book before beginning to read it, you’ll probably want to pass on this post.

As I was reading A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer recently, I found myself enthralled by the romance but slightly skeptical of some of the political machinations.  Then I came across a review on Goodreads that had one major complaint I hadn’t thought fully about: that a decent part of the plot revolves around the protagonist (who is from Washington, D.C. but pulled into a parallel world into the country of Emberfall) convincing the people of Emberfall that she is from a country in their world that she has completely invented, Disi. The Goodreads reviewer argues that this is a ridiculous plot devise and it’s absurd to think people would accept this story from the protagonist.  But…it is really that absurd?  Are there circumstances where a decent percentage of people would believe the protagonist was from a country they’d never heard of before?

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As we begin to address this question, I think we first need to address two main issues:

  1. We’re probably used to fantasy worlds where there are roughly five major countries.  Fantasy worlds, likely for the convenience of the author, tend to be small, and in that case it does seem laughable that someone would not be familiar with every single other country in existence.  For the sake of this discussion, however, we should imagine a world more like ours, which (Google informs me) has 195 countries currently.
  2. We need to remember A Curse So Dark and Lonely takes place in a medieval-esque world where getting information on what countries exist is not as a simple as asking Google.

Next, we should keep in mind some aspects of the plot of A Curse So Dark and Lonely:

  1. The borders of Emberfall have been closed for about five years, and practically no information has come in or out.
  2. The people are poor, desperate, and hungry and facing a possible invasion from the country directly to their north.

So, if the protagonist comes along and tells people that she is the Princess of Disi (a country they have never heard of before…because she made it up) AND that her father has a powerful army he would like to bring to their aid, is it plausible that characters would actually believe her?  Is it reasonable they wouldn’t start laughing and tell her they’d never heard of Disi and clearly she’s lying?

Actually, I think yes.  I think under these circumstances that many people would believe in DIsi.

In a medieval-esque world, the common people are likely not very educated.  They probably are not literate.  They probably don’t know much about geography beyond their own borders or what tales travelers bring.  In our own world, the average medieval peasant would not have known a great deal about far away places like the Middle East, Asia, or Africa (nevermind the very existence of North and South America).  If someone came to a village in medieval England and told a commoner they were from a kingdom the commoner never heard of before, I don’t think that would have struck them as odd. There were plenty of places and kingdoms they didn’t know much about.

Now add to this the particular details of the plot of A Curse So Dark and Lonely. The borders of Emberfall have been closed for a couple years.  In that time, it’s possible the kingdom of Disi had actually arisen, completely new, and no one had heard the news.  Also, Emberfall is in poverty and on the brink of war.  The people want to believe the Princess of Disi is going to bring her army to save them.  They have no immediate reason to think she’s lying, and they have plenty of reason to hope she’s telling the truth.

This is contrast to the more educated characters in the novel, some of whom are a bit more suspicious about the sudden appearance of a princess from a kingdom they’d never heard of before.  These people are probably literate, might have had access to world maps, and know enough of politics and court intrigue to realize there could be a motive for making up a princess with a powerful army.

I still have questions with some of the politics in A Curse So Dark and Lonely, but I’ve decided I can buy into the idea that  bunch of peasants would believe in the existence of a country that…doesn’t exist at all. What do you think?

Briana

What I Learned about Getting Traffic on Pinterest from My Free Trial of Tailwind

How to Boost Blog Traffic with a Free Trial of Tailwind-min

Introduction

A  week ago I wrote about Five Steps I’ve Taken to Improve Pinterest Traffic to My Blog, where I noted that some of the things I’ve done increased traffic, but I saw the biggest increase (about 60 views a day) from my free trial of Tailwind.

For background, Tailwind is a Pinterest-approved scheduler for pins that has other features like “looping” your pins, analytics, and tribes, which I’ll explain in a minute.  The free trial is for 100 scheduled pins, rather than a specific time period, but you can also get a credit for a free month (about a $15 value by clicking the link above–and I get a free month, too.)  So basically you can get two free trials, the first 100 pins (no credit card required) and then a free month (credit card required).  This post is about the free 100 pin trial.

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How the Tailwind Free Trial Helped Me Increase Blog Traffic

As I said, Tailwind is primarily a pin scheduler; you pick pins and add them to your queue, and the program will schedule them at “optimized” times when it believes your audience is most likely to see them.  However, most Pinterest advice suggests pinning anywhere from 30 to 100 times a day, so since the free trial is only for 100 pins, I scheduled about 5-7 pins daily to make the trial last and did most of my pinning manually.

So what was the free trial good for?  Tailwind Tribes.

Tailwind tribes are groups of people with similar interests who share each other’s pins.  The general rules are that for every pin you add to the tribe, you must schedule one of someone’s else’s. (Tailwind itself, in the basic package, allows you to join 5 tribes and add 30 of your own pins to a tribe each month, unless you upgrade for more tribes and pins. You get the 30 pins with your free trial.)

In the sense that you are supposed to leave a pin and then repin someone else’s to boost it, Tailwind tribes are kind of like Pinterest group boards. (You can join my book blogger group board here.However, Tailwind tribes are better than group boards (or were for me) for a couple reasons.

  1. People on Tailwind are serious Pinterest users. Remember that they’re paying about $10-$15 a month to belong to Tailwind.
  2. This means they are likely trying to follow the rule of pinning 30-100 things per day.
  3. Tailwind tribes give them a quick place to find content specifically related to books and book blogging that they can schedule in bulk.  They want to share your pins because that helps boost their own Pinterest profile and pins.

Group boards for book blogging, in my experience, do not necessarily get 30 pins a day that one can share to one’s own boards, whereas tribes have a much better selection of content to share, and I had far more success with people actually repinning my content from tribes than from most of the group boards I belong to.

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Results

A couple days after joining some book blogging tribes, my pins began getting shares (remember that people are scheduling them, so they might not be repinning your stuff immediately but rather a few days in the future), and I began getting much better blog traffic from Pinterest.  When things first took off, we got 60 page views just from Pinterest in a day, which is about as many views as we got in a whole month previously. It was obvious to me that the pins that were taking off and bringing traffic were specifically the ones I had added to tribes–not ones I tried to promote by adding them manually to my profile or group boards.

So am I joining Tailwind Permanently?

At this point, probably not. I definitely think it works, but the fact of the matter is that I make absolutely no money from blogging and I, therefore, try not to spend money on my blog.  If you do make money from your blog or you simply are willing to spend money on it as a hobby, I do recommend checking Tailwind out.

You can follow Pages Unbound on Pinterest by clicking here.

Briana

Is Religion YA’s Last Taboo?

In December 2018, Donna Freitas wrote an article for The New York Times titled “Is Any Topic Off Limits When You Write for Teenagers?  Maybe Just One.”  In it, she argues that, while YA has done a lot of good work in becoming more diverse in recent years, one topic remains unmentionable: religion.  I argued much the same in 2016 in  my post “Why Aren’t We Talking about Religious Diversity?”  Even though we talk about representing all kinds of characters so young readers can see themselves reflected in literature, we simply cannot represent characters of faith.  Readers, it seems, sometimes fear that even mentioning that a character has a religion could make a book “preachy.”  Talking about a character who prays, goes to synagogue, or asks questions about their faith is “evangelizing” and could tempt impressionable youth to convert on the spot, or at least just be annoying.  Many people seem to distinguish no difference between a character making a soapbox speech about why their religion is the best and a character who is simply depicted as wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday or fasting during Ramadan.

However, religious practices are part of the daily lives of many and spiritual beliefs influence what people do, think, and say.  This is simply reality.  A person of faith will likely see the world in a unique way and have to navigate it a little differently.  Maybe they realize the cafeteria is not serving anything they can eat that day.  Maybe they have to skip a sleepover so they can go to Mass.  Maybe they struggle with wanting to wait for marriage, but having feelings for someone or being mocked for their beliefs.  Maybe they want to lie, but wrestle with the knowledge that doing so is a sin.  Not depicting these things continues to make people of faith the “Other,” the weirdos, the fringe freaks.

Donna Freitas addresses the problem of non-representation very poignantly:

To ignore religion in Y.A. cedes the entire conversation about religion and spirituality, and all that it stands for, to exactly the kind of intolerant voices that Y.A. publishing has fought so hard against. Teenage readers search for themselves in books. The world of Y.A. is an activist one — an ideal sphere in which to interrupt the toxic religion-speak and attitudes that dominate our politics and culture at the moment, and to model the kind of spiritual longing so many young adults harbor, often secretly. Like me, they learn to be ashamed of it.

In other words, the silence around religion in YA continues to make religion seem like a shameful secret.  People fear to admit that they are religious because they do not want to be mocked or even threatened.  They do not want to be identified as a lunatic or a bigot.  They do not want to be seen part of that religion where “all priests are predators” or where “everyone is a terrorist.”  And these fears are not unfounded.  When religious characters are depicted in YA, they are often represented negatively as prudish, over-scrupulous, or brainwashed.  They’re the freak who won’t sleep around or the character who is clearly only religious because they can’t think for themselves.  When YA depicts religion only to deride it, readers learn that being religious is indefensible.

YA, however, has the power to change that and to show readers that being religious does not have to be a dirty little secret.  Depicting characters as religious would show what should be obvious: people of faith are normal people.  The people we all already attend school with, work with, and hang out with.  They’re not all crazed, brainwashed, or perpetually evangelizing.  They are simply people.  Moreover, depicting more characters of faith could show the wide range of what it means to be religious.  Even in religions like Catholicism where dogma says what Catholics must believe, plenty of people who identify as Catholic do not all follow the same rules or believe the same things.  Making blanket statements about people of faith becomes a lot more difficult when readers begin to see the wide range of beliefs people hold.

YA needs more religious characters–and not only characters grappling with issues like the Catholic sexual abuse scandal.  Characters who are going about their lives, saving the world, traveling through space, doing what YA characters typically do–just while having a religion.  Books are supposed to expand our minds, to help us walk in another person’s shoes.  So why should religion be taboo?  If we only opened to YA to more characters of faith, surely we would find that religion is not that scary.