Smash That Mirror! Why Self-Referencing Critiquers Could Be Dangerous


I’ve had a blog post in mind for a while on the dangers of critiquers that self-reference motivations for your characters and a post I saw yesterday helped sharpen my thoughts. So, today I want to explore why some critiques we receive might not be the best advice and could actually turn your unique voice into a pile of pablum. Yum. Yeah, not so much.

The kernel of my epiphany started when I read Amanda Quick’s Scandal a month or so ago and I had a reaction to the heroine along the lines of “Man, I would NEVER do that…” and at first thought her actions weren’t realistic because it was so different from what I would do. Then I stopped myself and realized that it was TOTALLY what the heroine would do and it made it more interesting to see how her decisions and outlook would work for her.

It got me thinking, since I was also receiving inline critiques at the time, about some of the feedback we receive when we submit our work. It also made me better understand articles I’ve read that said that readers are harder on heroines in Romances than on the hero, precisely because they insert themselves into the heroine’s shoes and so resent it when she behaves in a way they don’t like.

I feel like I’m rambling, so here’s my point: when we receive critiques, are we sure the critiquer has the character and story arc in mind, or are they basing the character on themselves?

I’ve received critiques myself that have made me wonder. They usually are along these lines: “If this were me, I’d tell that guy…” or “I would never react that way, this doesn’t sound believable.” These I used to heed blindly and is one reason I worry that my first chapter has been over-critiqued and become a Frankenstein mash-up of every critiquers’ POV. Earlier this past summer when I started getting inline critiques on, I was so new at this, I didn’t know how to evaluate comments. I hadn’t learned to match it against what I knew about the character. I remember one critiquer rewrote almost every sentence in my first chapter, stripping it of its rhythm and of the POV characters’ voice. One particular line I remember her saying, “get rid of this,” and yet it was something that was so how Isabelle thinks. All the other critiquers commented on that very line about how they loved it. Luckily, I did pay attention to my gut and the majority on that one, but I did rewrite a lot of sentences per that critiquer’s feedback. Sigh.

Sometimes, the feedback we receive from these types of critiquers might still be important, but am wondering if comments starting with “I would/would not” could be a useful indicator to take the comment with a spoonful of salt and really be extra vigilant about comparing it to the character’s motivations and outlook. I fear I also might have been one of these types of critiquers when I first started, yikes!

Why might heeding these types of critiques be dangerous? Everyone’s different (thank God!) and so if we end up conforming our character to each critiquer, we’ll end up with a non-character – all the things that made that character unique are gone. I touched a bit on this last month in a blog post on daring to defy 30% of the population.

But, if the critiquer writes, “This doesn’t sound like her. Up until now, she’s been feisty…” or some variation that shows that the critiquer is basing it on the past actions of the character and not on how they themselves would react, it’s more like gold. Especially if they have thought of the character in a nuanced way that you didn’t want. Their feedback might not be right for your character, but at least you know the critiquer is referencing it against the character and not self-referencing.

Yesterday’s post that shed an extra dimension to this realization was Lauren Harris’ The Four Temperaments (for You and Your Characters) – Part I. I almost skipped it because I’ve seen and read before about using the Myers-Briggs types to help with character development. But she did more of a big picture take on it (Sensing types vs. Intuitives) and with examples (love examples as they help my poor brain get it better) that showed how these two types would convey description and exposition.

Well, it made me wonder if this could be a way to look at critiquers as well. Wouldn’t one type be more apt to find the actions of the other type less believable? A sensing critiquer would be frustrated at the intuitive character for not taking note of certain things right off the bat, for instance. My heroine, Isabelle, is definitely an intuitive, and now I remember that I got some critiques where the critiquer said something along the lines of, “How could she make that hunch? Have her make note of certain things in the environment to justify this conclusion.” My thought when I read it, was, well, because she can. Doesn’t everybody? (Obviously, I’m an intuitive). Does this mean the critiquer was a sensing type and had a hard time getting that intuitives can come to conclusions in a different way than them?

Which brings up an interesting question. When I posted my comment on Harris’ blog, she said:

I hadn’t thought of turning the idea around and applying it to readers and critiquers, but that’s a very interesting point! I suppose it works if you know your critique partner quite well, or well enough to know their personality type. 😉 It could also help in figuring out how NOT to alienate readers who are a different temperament from the character (or you), in figuring out what kinds of details matter to a wider scope. (bolded by me)

How far should one go in calming the anxieties of the readers’ of the other type?

Anyway, this all goes back to the caution you hear in many places about critiques: know your story and your characters WELL before you start this stage in your novel process.

I know for veteran writers, this is no new revelation, and you’ve probably already stopped reading this post. But for a new writer, this is a huge realization to come to, and I know there are other writers at the same stage as myself, so I thought I’d share. If any veterans have stuck it out with me (bless you!), I’d love to hear what your thoughts are.

New writers, have you received critiques that were waaay off base for your character? Were you able to recognize it as such? Veterans, do you have any other advice for us new novelists on receiving critiques?

Do you know if your heroine is sensing or intuitive? What are you?

16 Replies to “Smash That Mirror! Why Self-Referencing Critiquers Could Be Dangerous”

  1. The problem with critiques from peer review is that you can’t control what other people do (even if you ask nicely). Critiquers can only respond within the limits of their abilities and aspiring writers are at various levels of development. They say what they think because it’s how they respond to the story, not because they have an understanding of what the story needs (or at least not very often).

    My point being that while what you say is true, it is of little use as an aid to critiquers (chances are they’re doing the best they can). Where it is of use is to the writer, to help them recognise what kind of critique they’re getting and to apply it to their work with that understanding.


  2. None of my novels are at the point you are at yet, but this post gave me a chuckle because it reminded me of a comment made on a short story I had written. The premise of the story was a bit of farce, and completely outrageous and most of the people who read it accepted that it was ridiculous and worked from there. But there was one reader whose first remark was, “This would never happen.” Not exactly a useful bit of criticism, because I KNOW that, but I essentially just wrote her off as someone with no sense of humor. Sometimes you really can just say, “It’s not me, it’s you.” (Not to their face, of course).

    1. There’s always one isn’t there? Sigh. At least the others got it and enjoyed it!

      I critiqued this one short story that I thought was totally delightful edgy and funny and after submitting it (I was the last one) I read the others and they didn’t like/get it. The writer messaged me and said she’d been about to chuck it into the blender until she got mine. Tastes vary for sure!

  3. Hi Angela, No wonder no one understands Michal! They’re all sensible, logical, analytic critters. I, like you, used to change and modify and tweak whenever someone said, “I don’t get it.” or “Did you give her a motivation?” And I wonder how much of my girl was diluted by having to “buy a brain.” But my character feels and acts. Thoughts catch up to her afterwards, if at all, before she’s onto her next caper. Note: this is my little rationalization on why I’m so bad at internal monologue, otherwise known as talking to myself.

    I’m pretty sure my first five chapters have been overanalyzed to death. And maybe all is well. Readers need to have some reason to keep reading. And her middle chapters have flip flopped back and forth between those who “gasp, would never do what she did.” and those who “oh, I would’ve done it, wouldn’t you?” And by the time I got to the end, it was like, she’s going to do this and girl ain’t gonna be stopped.

    And NO I WILL NOT EXPLAIN. You had fifty chapters to figure out what kind of person she is. And I apologize in advance for all the broken Kindles. Maybe Amazon should give me a kickback of some kind.

  4. Love your new blog design! I had this problem with my first MS it got so jumbled from everyone’s critiques that it became emotionless. My advice is to just figure out who your character is and run with it. Don’t listen to everyone’s nagging thoughts becasue that can get you in trouble. Take advice, but only the good stuff. It’s a tough balance!

  5. Sometimes I’ll get a critique from some people who I wonder if they actually read the story. I ignore those and the ones peppered with spelling/grammatical errors. But some critiquers are absolute jewels.

    It’s important to weigh the positive and the negative comments in critiques, then go with your gut and change what needs to be changed and leave what doesn’t. That’s hard to do, but who said writing was easy? 😉

  6. It’s a really good point, that some people may be basing the critique on what they would do, not the MC. It’s another great reason to look closely at the comments others make before you change things. Especially if they don’t feel right to begin with. Take them seriously, search for the root of the problem, and be open to alternative solutions. My two cents! 😀

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