Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Care and Handling of Characters

While doing some research on fiction currently in the Christian marketplace, I noticed that a word kept popping up in the story summaries. The word was 'devastating.' The situations in which the protagonist found him- or herself were generally 'devastating.' The decisions to be made (or the lack thereof) were potentially devastating. Why are so many of us hooked on devastating circumstances?

Now, 'devastating' is not a melodramatic, no good very bad word. It says what it means and promises action. I even searched my own books, and found it was used in their descriptions as well.

As readers, we want to identify with the characters and experience their feelings acutely. As writers, we try to create characters whom readers care about and then place them in dire straits to guarantee readers will become invested and keep reading. It sounds like a winning combination. Scarlet was devastated when Rhett left her, albeit for the brief second before she resolved to do something about it (
Gone With the Wind). Elizabeth Bennett was devastated to find that her sister was living out of wedlock with Wickham and that they were all 'tainted' by association (Pride and Prejudice). Jewel was devastated when her mother died and left her in the care of a self-righteous grandmother (Bret Lott's Jewel).

Can the word be over-used? Yes, and it can appear melodramatic. Careful handling is required. Can we care deeply about characters without 'devastation'? I'm not convinced of it. We need to see them at that lowest point to feel they truly need us. Again, careful handling. They can be devastated in the summation as long as their situation is true and not over-simplified or contrived, and their handling of it has dignity. If not, we lose respect - and interest - in the characters and their stories.

Have you met characters for whom you ached? Have you met any who did not seem to need you so much? How did you feel about it, and did you hang in there or close the book? We'd love to hear from you.


Wendy Paine Miller said...

Ha! I have that word in one of my pitch sentences. Will rethink.

I love to feel empathy for a character. I know a work is written well when I feel it for characters of any age or gender.
~ Wendy

Lori Benton said...

Double ha! I've used "devastating" in a pitch, too. It was to describe a war, which I think deserves the word. A word I tend to overuse is "struggle."

word verification: losem

Latayne C Scott said...

Yup, guilty as charged. I wrote in my synopsis that the church in Rome was devastated by x, y, and z.

But they really were. . . and that's your point. Unless the reader feels that important things are truly at risk, he or she won't engage emotionally.

Thanks for a great post, Debbie.

BK said...

Empathy for a character--sometimes this misfires in books. I don't need the devastation to be life and death--there are many ways a person can be potentially devastated, but lacking redeeming qualities is the #1 character turnoff for me.

I will sometimes see books that want to paint a particular character as sympathetic b/c they had a "devastating" childhood for whatever reason--but if the character has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, I could care less about them.

There needs to be a lot more going on with "poor so and so" other than fate and circumstances to make them a likeable character.

Nicole said...

Always the exception to the rule--or just plain stubborn . . .

"Devastation" is real for a lot of characters, even characters who are incredibly strong (i.e. Mitch Rapp in Consent to Kill), but for many people, devastation is an exaggeration.

I think it takes perhaps more imagination to write without "devastation". To take charcters through "normal" disappointments and sorrows and bring the reader into complete identifications with them and create empathy. But it depends a lot on the genre. In thrillers we expect havoc and devastation. Maybe also in historicals (don't normally read them).

I'm just saying . . .

Sadness, trouble, some turmoil, but the sense of a character(s) who can or will overcome:

The Passion of Mary-Margaret
June Bug
In High Places

Nicole said...

(I so agree with BK. Totally.)

Heidi said...

I agree with BK, too. There has to be more than just devastation, because if I don't like the character, I'm not going to care how he/she handles the devastation and how well they fare. (Wow, sounds harsh.) And not all devastation needs to be melodramatic and overwhelming; I think that the definition of devastation can be different for each character.

But when a writer can make my heart ache for a particular character, then they've done their job well. Like Charlotte Bronte with Jane Eyre.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Wendy, Lori and Latayne - I'm with you. It's a powerful word and I think I'll look for one that's not so worn.
BK, Nicole & Heidi - Sometimes the internal quiet 'devastation' is the worst kind and best reveals the character of the protagonist. For me, that can be the most rewarding read. No one wants to spend time with a character they don't respect. Jane Eyre is a great example of that inner strength.
When authors write the back cover copy or the short description for a proposal, they tend to use powerful visuals meant to draw the reader in. I think that is the tricky part.

Kay Richardson said...

I hate characters. That's why all of my (unpublished) novels feature only characterless animals like Ellie the Elephant and Tony the Toad.

PatriciaW said...

I don't like words like "devastating" in book blurbs. Always feels melodramatic to me. I might not think the events are so devastating.

But I do love characters that make me care for them, to root for them, to ache for them. I might even feel devastated when things don't go quite right. :-)

Megan Sayer said...

I'm currently reading "Suite Francaise". It was written by Irene Nemirovsky during her time in Auschwitz as a prisoner of Nazi Germany, where she later perished with her entire family. The story follows a disparate collection of people as they escape Paris after the German occupation.

"Devastating" is the only word I can use to describe this situation. It's simply horrendous, as is the terror that the writer herself faced in the death camp.

Which is why it's really hard for me to admit that I really don't care about these characters! The combination of a large ensemble cast and picking it up at the end of the day and reading a chapter at a time is making it hard for me to keep remembering who's who, and why I cared in the first place. Ouch. I should care...but I don't.

I read another book recently: "Self Editing for Fiction Writers" by Renni Browne and Dave King (AWESOME - recommend it to every writer!), where they talk about narrative distance, and how the more intimate the narrative distance is the closer you'll feel to the characters. I think that's where I'm at right now with "Suite Francaise" - the narrative distance is too great for me to engage, or want to engage. I like "close" books. Maybe some day I'll come back to Suite Francaise and find the gold in it - but right now I'm moving on.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Thanks for your observation, Megan. I recently put down a book for similar reasons. It also had a large ensemble cast and I needed one main character to step out from the rest and keep my attention. 'Devastating' also applied to that story, but it was warranted. Unfortunately, I only knew how it ended by skipping ahead (naughty, I know!).