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.