Follow the Audience or Follow Your Heart? Just Ask Mom.

In my last post I discussed audience opinion of story-how it differs with each person and how a piece of brilliance to one can be a piece of trash to another.

So now we come to a new discussion: how to craft a story.  Do we mold what we want to say based on audience reaction and want, or do we write the story that is found in our heart, even when the audience doesn’t care for it?

When working on my first story, I had the entire plot figured out.  My villain was a villain and my hero was a hero.  There were the bystanders and the sidekicks and the comic relief all in between.  I wrote it all in my outline (which was eventually ditched, as you’ve probably read in an earlier post) and then wrote a few chapters just to see how the story would go.

Now I’m the type of writer that needs a guinea pig-the poor, unfortunate soul who has to listen to me ramble on and on about plot points, character dilemmas, and the fifty different endings I have planned for the next chapter.  And since she was the only one willing to listen to my rambles, my mother became my guinea pig.

(There is a special reward in Heaven for that woman for putting up with me.  Remember the boring teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?  Yeah, that’d be me, and my poor mom is the class.)

So I read my sample chapters and outline during lunch and what surprised me was her reaction.  “I like it, but…can’t the guy and girl get back together?”

I then explained to her that said guy was a villain and that there was no way he was having a sappy romantic ending.  This story was supposed to be melodramatic!  I was not writing chick lit.  No.  No, no, no.

But then she gave me the puppy dog look.  You can’t say no to your mother when she’s giving you that.

So I conceded.  I changed the entire plot line just because she wanted the bad guy to get his old girlfriend back.

I expected the story to be ruined.  I expected my plot points to fall apart.  I expected my awesome action drama to lose all credibility because it gained romance.  But my mother’s request to give the bad guy a break actually made the story…better.  It made the antagonist suddenly turn into a tragic hero and gave rise to a more conniving, deceptive villain who before only had a small role.  It added romance to an otherwise dull love story.  And it eventually changed the plot.  The story began as a regular cookie cutter tale with a predictable ending and evolved into something more complex and gray.  My mother’s questioning of my original idea made me, in the end, more creative, as I had to think of a new story to replace the old one that was planned.

In this case, audience opinion won.

But in that same story came another plot point that was questioned.  One of my main characters was not going to have a happy ending.  Her side plot was sad and rather unfortunate.  When I read this part of the tale to my mom, she begged me to change it.  “Please give her a happy ending too!” She said.  Knowing that changing the plot at my mom’s suggestion worked before, I thought I would try it.  But no matter what, the plot never improved.  In fact, it worsened.  Said character’s fate had to remain the same because without it, the middle and ending of the story-with all its careful connections-could never happen.  Also, the guy-who-was-a-villain wouldn’t get the girl in the end.

The plot point stayed the same because I knew the story couldn’t move forward without it.  The characters each had their own role to play, and for this specific character-her role was set in stone.  There was no moving away from it.

It took about a year for my mom to accept that.  She still wanted the character to have a happy ending, but after months of conversation, she finally conceded.  “I may not like it.” She said in the end, “But I know you’re right.  It has to happen in the story.”

Score one for following your heart.

So which option is best?  Do we write to please the audience or do we write what’s in our hearts no matter what the audience thinks?  I think the answer depends on the story and the author writing it.  In my case, I’ve seen the benefits of both.  Listening to my mom’s request brought about a whole new world for one of my “villains”.  Not listening to her, however, kept the story strong for a side character’s role in the plot.  It just depended on the story that was being written.

No matter who the writer is, I think this question will have to be answered as he or she is writing the story. On one hand, the answer seems easy. But when you really look at the story from both your perspective and the audience’s, the answer gets a little murky. And that’s when the writer must decide-follow the audience or follow the heart?