Say you’ve looked over the review, and decided you just have someone who Doesn’t Like What You Wrote. This leads to step three: Why are they leaving a bad review? Do they not like the story in general? Something about the quality of your writing? How you portray the characters? Something wrong in the canon details?
When you think about how to reply to a comment like this, you may want to consider if this is a complaint, or someone trying to give constructive criticism but getting the tone horribly wrong. “X character would never act like that!” is a different comment to reply to than, “You showed X character doing this, but in this similar instance in canon X did that instead.” Both of these may be opinions, but with the second one you have a better chance to have an actual conversation. Look for bits of the comment that indicate they engaged with your story. As in, actually read it, as opposed to skimming the summary and deciding to give you a piece of their mind based on events and character portrayals that may not even exist in your work.
Yes, that happens. Part of it may be carelessness, or someone just needing to gripe, or who gets their exercise through vigorous jumping to conclusions. But a lot of it can hinge on plain, ordinary (but not simple) psychology.
People are complicated. Characters are simple. Relatively speaking.
Just as a story is “life with all the boring parts edited out,” so a fictional character is a stripped-down version of the complexity of a real personality. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just the way things have to work when you’re telling a story. There’s not enough room or time to flesh out a character the way RL deals with a person.
On top of that, since we as human beings tell ourselves a “story” of who we are to get through life, we think we’re much less complicated people than we really are. “I am an honest Catholic beat cop with a wife and two lovely daughters,” is a great story-of-self for someone to get by day to day, but it glides over bits like what you really think about each of your coworkers and fellow citizens, the doubts and joys of trying to live a life of faith, and the hidden regret for not chucking it all as a teen and becoming a street busker.
That doesn’t even start to get into the mare’s nest of unconscious motivations psychiatrists try to untangle for their patients. Some people wreck their entire lives for a trauma they can’t even consciously remember. One woman in Barbara Sher’s I Could Do Anything (If Only I Knew What It Was) finally tracked down her manipulative, “everyone must rescue me!” behavior to events that happened to her as a toddler: her mother had cancer, died of it, and her family would physically rip a crying young child off her mother every time they visited in the hospital. That desperate, unmet child’s need shaped her life for decades. If no one in the family had been willing to finally tell her what happened, she might never have figured out why she kept doing things she knew were wrong. Only with that clue could she start fixing herself.
Characters are simplified people. That gives them a lot of “blank space” we can project ourselves on. When we see a reflection of ourselves in a character, good or bad, we’re not neutral toward them. And we can have a hard time objectively reading what actually happens on the page versus what we think should have happened.
IMHO, this tendency shows up most intensely when a reader or writer considers what behavior is in-character and what is hopelessly, hideously OOC. Just look at all the ways people have written Batman over the past decades. From the grim but fair World’s Greatest Detective, to the campy Caped Crusader of the 70s, to that utter travesty of a Punisher-in-a-funny-cowl version in the DC movie versus Superman.
Which is an example right there of when I think a character was written horribly OOC. Evidently Hollywood thought otherwise.
So character can be open to interpretation. One thing that commonly happens in fanfic is a character’s top-note “accent trait” – such as Edward Elric’s temper about being called short, or Batman’s Dark and Grim Attitude – will get turned Up To Eleven. Because that trait resonated with the reader. And yet, in canon, the character isn’t like that all the time. And writing them so they’re not hitting that note every 5 pages isn’t OOC.
Canon details… that can depend. Maybe you missed something. Or maybe not. I once got into a serious argument with a fellow writer about Sekirei that we only cleared up once we realized she was listening to the Japanese version while I was following the dub – and they said very different things. There’s also the problems you run into when you watched the series, but someone else tracked down the author’s website and other extras that explained more of canon. Meaning someone might jump all over you for contradicting canon you didn’t even know existed.
On that note, the fanwriting rule of thumb is, series canon comes first. Extra materials like appendices and author interviews are just that – extra. If you use them, fine. But you’re not violating canon by not using them.
And then there’s always the case where you explicitly put in your author’s notes that you’re AUing that specific bit of canon… and the commenter ignored the notes completely. Not much you can do for that besides facepalm and sigh.
Which is a good rule of thumb for considering how to reply to tetchy reviews in general. First, is the reviewer actually paying attention to what was written, what happened in the story you told? If so, maybe they did spot something you missed. Whether or not you choose to do anything about that is up to you. Your story, you decide if it needs fixing. And second, is the reviewer trying to consider their perspective may not be the same as yours? Are they asking questions, looking for information, rather than just telling you you’re wrong, wrong, wrong? If they’re not paying attention, and they’re not considering alternate perspectives, then you’re up against someone who did not wait before they hit the reply button. They’re reacting, not thinking, to something that made them bristle, for whatever reason. And to paraphrase Jonathan Swift, you cannot reason someone out of a position they were not reasoned into in the first place. A reply might be tempting, but it may not get you anywhere but frustrated.
So. Those are potential pitfalls and frustrations of review replies and the various interpretations of a fandom. The good news is, most readers are definitely there for the Story, and trying in good faith to look at how another fan interprets the beloved characters and setting. Some really cool stuff can come up in reviews! Even inspirations for more stories. And that means everybody wins.