Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Mitigating Circumstances

mitigating circumstances:
n. in criminal law, conditions or happenings which do not excuse or justify criminal conduct, but are considered out of mercy or fairness in deciding the degree of the offense the prosecutor charges or influencing reduction of the penalty upon conviction. Example: a young man shoots his father after years of being beaten, belittled, sworn at and treated without love. "Heat of passion" or "diminished capacity" are forms of such mitigating circumstances.
See also: diminished capacity  heat of passion  Twinkie defense  ~from Law.com

I once worked at an incarceration facility for juveniles. More recently, I sat on the jury for a criminal trial that was major enough to make headlines in my small county. From these experiences and so many more, I've come to the opinion that there are always mitigating circumstances.

That's not to say that criminals should be excused - the needs of real and potential victims must be considered first. I'm saying that people have reasons for the things they do,  that those reasons come to them from the world in which they've been placed, and when we understand that world, their actions can be utterly, and sometimes tragically logical.

To state it from a writer's perspective: Story emerges from character, but character emerges from a world.

Two novels have left me muttering "story world" in my sleep of late: One is Bonnie's new, as-yet unpublished manuscript. (I know, I'm so blessed!) I want this story to be bound into a beautiful cover and delivered to your eager hands, so I can't reveal much about it. But Bonnie has done a masterful job of showing the reader something more than a setting - not just a context or environment designed to serve the story, but a community which is part of - effected by and in return, effecting - a larger world.

Okay, that's all I'm going to tell you, for Bonnie's sake, and for yours. I'll talk instead about another remarkable novel I listened to this week: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See.

In the first few paragraphs, the narrator, Lily, gives us our first clues about the societal influences we must understand if her story is to make sense to us:

For my entire life I longed for love. I knew it was not right for me—as a girl and later as a woman—to want or expect it, but I did, and this unjustified desire has been at the root of every problem I have experienced in my life.

Many people you and I know feel themselves to be unloved, and their experiences are echoed in countless characters in countless novels. What sets Lily apart is the assumption that her need for love is unjustified - because she is a girl.

Hoping they would show me even the most simple kindness, I tried to fulfill their expectations for me—to attain the smallest bound feet in the county—so I let my bones be broken and molded into a better shape.

I listened for even five minutes, and already I hurt for a child born into such a culture, and wondered what would become of her. As I learned the answer, I also learned more about the culture that produced the woman Lily became, and about the greater world that produced the culture.

I learned about the political and economic events that formed and later changed my character's assumptions, and the way those changes within her would help to form a new world that would change other characters.

I also learned to see my own culture through new eyes. Values parents taught their children in Snow Flower that were so appallingly foreign at first (a little girl's feet must be forcedly broken and stunted to resemble a chili pepper in shape and size ...) became disturbingly familiar at the last (... so that she will appear delicate and beautiful and attractive to men).

Because both novels, Bonnie's new manuscript and Lisa See's Snow Flower revealed such rich story worlds,  their characters were painted more vividly, their stories made richer, more haunting and full of meaning.

How about you? Read any stories lately that showed you something more than setting, that showed you a world? Please tell us all about it. We love to read what you have to say.

10 comments:

Bonnie Grove said...

Thank you, Katy. I'm honored by your thoughts about my novel. Truly.

I'm up next to post on Black Friday, and I was going to do some teaching about dialogue (from Sharon's post on Monday), but now I'm thinking I should do some teaching on story world.

Maybe I'll let our readers choose?

What say you, fair reader? Would you prefer me to teach on dialogue or story world on Friday?

Susie Finkbeiner said...

When I read a book that draws me into the story world, it feels like magic. Those are the stories that I am sad to finish because I feel like I'm moving away from a community of characters that I love. These are the stories that cause me to pray for the characters and, mid-prayer, realize that they aren't real. I think God understands that.

Bonnie, I'd love to learn about story world. I'll have more than my share of interesting family dialogue on Thursday. I might need an escape. :)

Lynn Dean said...

One of the most disturbing story worlds I've experienced is in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. It is disturbing because, as a refugee from communism, she nails the thought processes that lead a country in that direction. Her observations are acute and focused. But as a believer, I found her proposed solutions fell short of God's standards.

Rand's Anthem is a shorter work with an equally focused story world. Very effective!

If Christian writers write with such focus, think of the effect!

Sharon K. Souza said...

Bonnie, I'd love your discussion on story world, especially since story world is so vital to your latest work, and so expertly achieved.

Patti Hill said...

Love your post, Katy! Your examples, of course, are spot on. Story world is seldom discussed, but it's the element that draws us into another reality where we want to stay and stay. Yes, Bonnie, tell us more.

Katy, sitting on a trial is tough. Praying for you.

Megan Sayer said...

Over the years I've read and reread countless Agatha Christie novels, written between the 1920s and the 1970s (she is not only prolific, but always surprisingly original - I can't praise Agatha highly enough!) and that large-scale ingesting has given me a really strong sense of her overall story-world, certainly in place, but most importantly in TIME. Although she was writing "contemporary" fiction at the time, she's left a brilliant impression of the Modernist generation, and the remnant of Victorian and Edwardian England.
This, for me, has been incredibly helpful in understanding my parents and grandparents, and why they thought and acted the way they did. It's too easy to impose 21st Century thought patterns and expectations on an older generation, and struggle to understand why there is conflict.

Kathleen Popa said...

I'm voting for Bonnie to tell us about story world. I'm nearly done with her manuscript, and it's a remarkable book.

Susie, yes, I think I've found myself praying for characters, too. Definitely a sign of a good story.

Lynn, I've never read Atlas Shrugged. Must read.

Megan, you're so right. It bothers me too, to see characters in historical novels thinking as though they just slipped through the wormhole from the 21st century. One of the reasons we read such stories is to see through the eyes of someone in a different time and place.

Sharon and Patti, mwah!

Bonnie Grove said...

Story world it is. Of course, this coming Friday is the cursed US Black Friday, so I'm not sure how many will actually read it this weekend, but it will be kicking around the archives too.

:)

Kathleen Popa said...

I'll read it. :)

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Creating storyworld is the best part of speculative fiction. It is the hardest work too since we have to clarify things that don't have comparisons in this world. I run on the premise that human nature does not change and therefore mitigating circumstance, whatever the alien looks like, also stay the same. It is the human that reacts. Now if it is a story about an alien reacting.... This is beyond my league.