Reader Expectations vs Integrity of Story

I almost feel the need to apologize. I’m going to talk about process again. I admit it, process fascinates me. As much or more how a thing gets done as what. I’m not sure that’s normal. There’s also the fact that I’m always going to feel more comfortable talking about what I do as I opposed to who I am. I’ll work on that, I promise, but in the meantime, this is what I have, so I’m just going with it.

This post could have just as easily been called “walking the tightrope.” There’s a truism that “all stories are really about the time and culture in which they’re written,” even if they’re set in ancient Greece or the moons of Proxima Centauri. There’s truth in that. Even if you’re trying to be faithful to what’s known about Greece in, say, 427 BCE, you’re still going to be writing from the cultural background and perspective of a person living in the 21st Century, and more to the point, you’re going to be writing for readers of the same ilk.

In short, you’ve got a problem.

This was brought home to me in a very specific way once upon a time when I was revising and expanding a draft of a Lord Yamada story. For those who don’t know, the Lord Yamada series takes place in and around Heian-Kyo/Kyoto in mid 11th century Japan. Literacy was widespread among the upper classes, and there is much that survives in the literature and poetry of the time. A large proportion of what does survive is perfectly familiar (or at least understandable) to us now. Despite time and cultural differences people are people, and a love poem is a love poem, whether it was written in 1050 AD or last week. The poetic conventions and allusions may not be familiar, but the emotions and the expression of those emotions still speak to us now, centuries later. But other well-documented aspects of that society? Not so much.

To cut to the chase, I finished the rewrite and was rather pleased with it. I gave it to First Reader for her opinion. She’d liked the earlier draft, with some reservations. She hated this one. Absolutely hated it. The expanded section felt tacked-on to her, and the addition of a red herring? Totally unnecessary, but the reaction I was getting couldn’t be accounted for by a bit of digression. There had to be more to it, and after some back and forth we got to the heart of the matter. One of my central characters, whom she had been fond of in the first draft? Now she detested him. Now he was a no-good bastard and the story, so far as she was concerned, was ruined because of it.

So what was his crime? And, by extension, mine?

Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that an important plot point turns on the Heian culture’s attitudes toward sexual relationships and marriage. Here’s the basic setup: A noble named Akio has been struck down by what appears to be a curse. His friends and the woman he is slated to marry, Suzume, are desperate to save him, and Lord Yamada is called in. During the course of Yamada’s investigation it comes out that Lord Akio has a lover who is not the woman he is going to marry. Worse, while the woman he IS going to marry is a childhood friend and they are very fond of each other, neither is in love with the other as we understand the term. All of Akio’s romantic feelings are directed to this “other woman,” whose name is Ayame.

That’s part of his crime. Before this information came out in the expanded draft, First Reader thought the story was a love story between Akio and Suzume. Now she knows it isn’t, or at least not the one she thought it was. And Lord Akio is now a rat bastard for planning to marry his fiance and not the woman he loves. Worse still is the second reason why he cannot marry the woman he loves, the first of course being that the marriage was arranged by the heads of their respective families and neither Akio nor his fiance Suzume have much say in the matter. The second reason is that Ayame, his “true love,” is an orphan and the last surviving member of her family.

So why is this a problem? Simple: there are no living male relatives who can give Ayame permission to marry. Without that permission, a formal marriage is out of the question.

Yeah, I know. That was First Reader’s reaction, too. But under the laws and customs of that time and that place, a woman was not free to choose her husband. While marriage in Heian Japan was rather more informal than it is now(to say the least) there were certain strictures and expected modes of behavior. Ayame, as a “good girl” of noble family, cannot enter into any official arrangement with Akio or anyone else without dishonoring her departed father’s spirit. One legal way around this is to let herself be adopted into another family, but this she refuses to do because it would mean the extinction of her father’s line. This attitude is so ingrained in her psyche that, as she later tells Yamada, the first time she and Akio were intimate, she had to insist that Akio “force” her, so that technically she would not be giving herself to a man without her dead father’s permission.

Again, yeah, I know. In cases like this, in my opinion you have three alternatives. 1) You can write the story as if the culture has the same attitudes as yours, in which case there’s little point in setting the story in that culture in the first place. Or 2) You can stay true to your material and accept that many readers are not only not going to connect with it, but probably project upon YOU the attitudes they find offensive or 3) You can stay as true as possible to your material while filtering it to the expectations of your readers as far as you reasonably can. Option 3 is perhaps the best but it has its own dangers. You have to be careful to avoid “dumbing down” the story. Also recognizing that, no matter what you do, there will come a point in that direction beyond which you simply cannot go without violating the integrity of the material.

I hope I’ll always know that point when I see it. If I do, I will still call the story a success. I called this one a success, even though, yes, First Reader still hated it.

You can’t win ’em all.

Addendum: If you’re curious, that was Lady of the Ghost Willow, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #53