The Scowling Boyfriend: Unintentionally Angry Characters

A few years ago, I put the final touches on my first completed book. After popping the sparkling cider (champagne was saved for actual publication), I sent it out to the lovely people who volunteered to be my beta readers and anxiously awaited their comments. I was sure they would all love it to pieces, and I would be on my way to a writing career.

You’ve probably guessed that my fantasy flopped. Yes, I received good comments, but there was also honest criticism that my fragile ego didn’t want to hear. I shelved that book, convinced that it wasn’t worthy of sending into the world.

Looking back on the experience, I can now accept those comments in the spirit they were given, and I am thankful to my readers for their input. They weren’t being hurtful; on the contrary, they were honest and helpful.

I have a couple of observations from that experience. One, other than a glass of sparkling cider, I never gave myself full credit for finishing the book. That was a level I never reached. I have files of half plotted, partly written novels, none of which kept my interest long enough to reach the finish line. Maybe it was a weak plot or maybe I was waiting for inspiration to keep the storyline moving instead of putting in the work. It didn’t matter. This time I had a completed book. By refusing to give it the extra polish it needed, I canceled out a major accomplishment.

One of my beta readers voiced the other observation: my characters were angry. Funny, I didn’t think they were. Since this was a middle grade historical fiction novel, my characters were preteens. Why did they come across as grumpy old men?

When asked my to expand on her comment, my reader said that in an effort to express emotion and personality, I unintentionally gave those kids the mannerisms of The Grinch. They scowled. They frowned. They crossed their arms. They jammed their fists onto their hips. And worst of all, they growled, whined, or scrunched up their noses. To show emotion, I defaulted to silent movie showmanship.

Since then, I have run across cozy mysteries with similarly angry characters. Case in point: a book of cozy short stories by a self-published author who shall remain nameless. Kudos to her for publishing several cozies, both in short story and novel lengths. She has an email list and a social media presence. This is an author who is serious about finding her way on Kindle Unlimited and, from what I gleaned, she is doing well enough.

This author is also familiar with the genre. Her sleuth owns a coffee shop in a small New England town oozing with character. She has a group of sidekicks who give her a sounding board as she sifts through clues. She is dating the chief of police who knows all the lowdown on whatever murders are happening. He tries to keep her nose out of police business, but she carries on and, naturally, solves the murder du jour.

I didn’t like the book for one reason: that police chief/boyfriend was an angry character.

I understand that he wanted to keep his girlfriend safe and wasn’t happy about her running around town seeking a murder suspect. She was trespassing in his domain. But this author did the same thing I did in my book. The chief snarled. He rolled his eyes. He jammed his fists on his well-toned hips. Worst of all, he put her down for being curious.

Through it all, our heroine thought he was a great catch. Me? Not so much.

As I read, I was sure the author didn’t mean to give the sleuth an abusive boyfriend. Domestic abuse is not part of the cozy genre. She simply wasn’t skilled in the subtle ways of conveying emotion.

And it is a skill. Kudos to those writers who have mastered it.

I’m thankful to my beta reader for pointing out my unintentionally angry characters. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re doing until someone points it out. And then, like buying a new car and you suddenly see that make and model all over town, I am hyperaware of angry characters in other writers’ stories.

Welcome to the club.

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