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Two novels have left me muttering "story world" in my sleep of late: One is Bonnie's new, as-yet unpublished manuscript.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.