Revisions & the Sympathy Factor
I turned in revisions yesterday on my Waterloo-set book, Imperial Scandal (which will be out in April 2012). I love the revision process, a chance to hone and shape and refine the story and characters (though I get very nervous letting the book go, afraid I've missed something). Thinking back through the revisions, I didn't actually make that many major changes (though it certainly felt as though I was working on them long enough!). But I did make one significant change at my editor's suggestion. It involved reworking a scene which originally involved infidelity on the part of the one of the major characters.
This was a scene I'd had in my own mind for a long time before I wrote Imperial Scandal, and I was sure that this was how this would play out for these two characters (two people who are devastated and cast adrift in the wake of the battle of Waterloo). But my editor was afraid it would destroy reader sympathy for the character committing infidelity and on reflection I could totally see her point (I had actually known I was pushing the envelope with this scene). When I broached the topic on my website with some readers who were familiar with both characters, reactions were mixed, but in general convinced me my editor was right to worry about the sympathy issue.
Oddly enough, going back to Leslie's and Pam's recent excellent posts on writing sex scenes, this was the one sex scene I'd written recently where it actually seemed important to show some detail of how the scene played out. I'd actually had some qualms myself about whether or not one of the characters (not the one committing infidelity as it happens) would actually go through with it. I ended up writing two new versions of the scene, one in which the characters almost make love and break it off, one in which is a tearful farewell without lovemaking (though it does still include a farewell kiss). I ended up using the later, and I'm quite happy with it and how it fits into the arc of the book. But when I was describing the revision over the weekend to a writer friend who had read the original manuscript, she said she'd liked the way the scene originally played out (even though it surprised her) and that it actually made her more sympathetic to the characters.
Which prompted me to think about what makes me lose sympathy for a character. It's an elusive thing. In general, once I'm engaged with a character, I will stick with her or him through a lot. And an action that might make me lose sympathy for one character in one set of circumstances might not bother me so much with another character in other circumstances. Heathcliff lost my sympathy when he let his sickly son die (not calling a doctor). Francis Crawford of Lymond held on to my sympathy when he was more directly responsible for the death of his son, the difference for me I think being that Heathcliff acts out of anger and hurt whereas Lymond is trying to save others. And that Lymond is wracked with guilt afterward. I confess I lost sympathy for Fanny Price when she objected to amateur theatricals. Whereas Emma's Woodhouse's treatment of Miss Bates saddened me but didn't destroy my sympathy for Emma. Of course Emma too feels guilt afterward.
I'm still pondering other characters and what engages or disengages my sympathy. Meanwhile, while I like the revised scene in Imperial Scandal, I'm also glad I had the chance to write it the way I originally envisioned it. After Imperial Scandal is published, I'll post all three versions on my website. I'll very interested in reader reactions.
Writers, what's the biggest change you've made in the revision process? Have you ever changed something because you were worried about reader reactions? Readers, has a character you liked (particularly in an ongoing series) ever lost your sympathy? Why?