If you’ve been hit by a bad beta reader you’ll know it. Emotionally, at least. You’ll feel panicked, anxious, FULL of self-doubt, and lower than low. However, your rational mind will try to talk you out of it. Writers need to be thick-skinned, it will say. All feedback is valuable in some way, it will add. But your gut will feel otherwise. Deep down, you’ll know that something is off. Something is wrong.
And then, if you don’t find another outside party to confide in who can give you that reinforcement and validation you need to trust your gut, you can quickly spiral out of control and lose all confidence in your book.
But how often does this happen, really? This is a fair question I get from a lot of writers, because it seems like most beta readers genuinely want to be helpful. And I can agree with you there. But, as a writing coach who talks a panicked writer off the ledge at least once a month due to the random bad beta reader, I can tell you that the experience happens to writers much more frequently than you would think.
The most common bad beta reader, by far, is the beta reader who just doesn’t like a particular character (or characters). It’s as if the beta reader met the character at a cocktail party in real life and the character did or said something that pushed the beta reader’s buttons. Maybe they expressed strong opinions the beta reader doesn’t agree with, or acted in a way that pushed the beta reader’s boundaries. Whatever it was, it rubbed the beta reader the wrong way, in a big way. And the beta reader got annoyed or just plain mad.
Now, in real life, most of us know that we’re bound by the laws of physical reality. So if you’re at a party and you decide you don’t like someone there for whatever reason, it’s just kind of too bad. You can get into a conflict with them, which is never very helpful, or you can choose to move away from them and continue on with your business in the hopes of running across different people at the party that you like better.
The problem with most bad beta readers crops up when the beta reader assumes that just because we’re talking about fictional characters the rules have somehow changed. I see this occur most frequently with civilians (aka, non-writers). A lot of non-writer people assume that writers can just write characters any old way they want them to be, and that the writer is always in control and rationally shapes and molds characters in a certain way to appeal to the widest sampling of the general population possible. In my personal experience with writers, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Writers almost always have to work with characters on the character’s own terms. And things quickly start heading south when the writer forgets that important fact. So, even if a character has some serious flaws and tends to push buttons with people, there’s not much the writer can do about it. Nor should they. When a writer starts messing about with a character with the intention of making them palatable to a random bad beta reader who didn’t like them for whatever reason they run the risk of seriously messing up their story.
Now, there is a silver lining to the bad beta reader experience. Usually, beta readers hate certain characters because those characters triggered them in some way, and if your characters are able to trigger the reader to the point that the reader has an intense emotional reaction, then you are doing your job as a writer and you’re doing it well. You could write characters that are bland, accommodating, and trigger no one, but those characters would be boring.
So what do you do if you’ve been hit by a bad reader? Well, the most effective answers to that question are actually what you don’t do:
DON’T rewrite your character (or characters) to satisfy what the beta reader thinks they should be like. If you’re working with realistic, complex characters with human emotions and motivations then they are bound to annoy or piss off some readers. That’s just the way it goes.
DON’T try to talk your beta reader out of their reaction. Even if you do it through gritted teeth, thank them for their time and let them go on their way. You don’t need to waste your precious creative energy trying to change their point of view.
DON’T let self-doubt take over and force you into halting work on your novel. Keep forging ahead and working according to plan. One monkey wrench thrown into your positive mood doesn’t need to spoil the entire process.
And if you’re really having trouble pulling out of the funk a bad beta reader has sent you into, think of a few of your very favorite books of all time, and then go on Amazon and read the one-star reviews of them. You will quickly see a pattern of readers being emotionally triggered, taking things personally, and going on the defensive or into attack mode. Once your rational mind sees how absurd it would be for your favorite writers to take this kind of feedback to heart, your emotions will start to settle too.
Every writer gets a bad beta reader sometime, it just happens. But it’s not the end of the world and it doesn’t mean something is wrong with your book or your characters. It’s just another one of those trial-by-fires that we writers seem to LOVE to go through.
You just keep doing you, and let everyone else have their reaction.
Lauren Sapala is the author of Firefly Magic: Heart Powered Marketing for Highly Sensitive Writers, a guide to help any HSP, INFJ, INFP, or introvert writer move past resistance to selling and marketing their work. She is also the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers.