Wednesday, March 17, 2010
To the PAIN
Blame this one on Doc Rob. He asked me what errors irritated me the most when I read a book. What did I wish the author had done differently.
Of course, what I wish writers would do differently depends on the writer. The one that fails to let me into the story at all is bad word usage. There are people whose sense of word drives me insane. Sometimes I know why – for instance, a sing-song cadence or words that are too convoluted – sometimes I have no idea.
However, past that, most of the problems I have are with the handling of character. Yes, even the plot problems. Because characters are always at the center of my plot.
This ties in somewhat with Dave’s post on Monday. People might not want my catharsis or my pain, but they do, in a way, provided I disguise it, change it and make it relevant. And for that I need a character.
Other writers do this differently and write different types of characters. They write strong characters, accomplished characters. It doesn’t bother me when they write their characters. No, what makes me throw the book against the wall is when they write MY type of character. And do it wrong.
So, what is a Sarah type character, you ask? What do Thena and Tom and Kyrie and Rafiel and Peter from Soul of Fire have in common?
When I’m casting about for a character to carry a story I look for one thing: pain. Pain and an impossible dilemma. Tom, kicked out of the house too early, and having learned all the wrong things AND incapable of controlling the dragon. Thena, not even raised to be human and faced not only with saving her life, but adapting to a whole other world, all the while falling in love with someone who is not... easy to love.
I go where the pain is greatest, the drive pitted most unavailingly against the obstacle, and I write there. And when the character achieves catharsis, hopefully so does the reader – if not something they can translate to their own lives, at least something they can “feel” vicariously.
Some psychologists believe humans grow when they come to a dead end. They can’t progress along the path they’ve been going and they must change. (Which is why people who get everything handed to them never grow up.) I know – having experienced it – this process can happen vicariously when you get so wrapped up in the character’s growth that you live it too, a little.
Now, I’m not saying it needs to be all angst. My books tend to be a little angsty. Maybe it’s who I am. But for instance, Georgette Heyer manages this wonderfully without much angst at all. Take Sylvester, where the shy girl has learned to cope with life by retreating into her imagination. When her imagination gets into trouble and hurts the man she’s come to love (because she wrote a book in which she tuckerized him, if you haven’t read it) she has to accept her responsibility and deal with the real life consequences of her escapism. There is pain and growth in that, even though it’s all done with a light and humorous touch.
On the other hand, there’s a book I threw against the wall so hard, it stuck there. Not going to name the writer. Let’s just say she’s a bestseller. It starts out with one of the MOST fascinating characters I’ve ever read. Someone I couldn’t come up with – or haven’t, though I’m thinking of stealing him! – in a million years. This character is... let’s say... the ghost of a bad, bad man who was responsible for the death of hundreds of people. The thing is, by the time you find this out, you’ve already become attached to the character who is, in this persona, a young man, before he killed anyone, and doesn’t know what he grew up to do.
He is tormented and suffering and doesn’t know why. And as the other main character, who is falling in love with him, finds out, she is repulsed by who he really is.
There is great tension here, a great potential for catharsis and growth. So, what does the writer do? She has the ghost take over the body of a recently dead young man, about the same age. The memories and personality merge and NOTHING is resolved. On top of that, the dead young man wasn’t introduced before, died by accident, and has nothing to resolve. And his memories are foremost. So basically, she bait-and switched the character with the problem for one without.
This is the sort of thing that makes me throw the book against the wall. I bet you the author thought she was doing something “unexpected”. Yes, she was. It’s normally unexpected to cheat the reader out of the promised catharsis and redemption. It’s also bad. It lets all the air out of tires of tension and need for resolution that you’ve been building up.
It takes a “third, easy” and never before glimpsed path between the crushing cliffs of drive and obstacle.
It makes me want to say, with Juliet, “Dost thou leave me thus, unsatisfied?”
So, what things make you leave a book unsatisfied? How do books miss the mark for you? Now you think about it do they do it by taking the easy way out, via either character-interruptus or deux-ex-author? By inference, in which way do books find the mark for you? And which ones fulfill promises you didn’t even know they were making?
PS - Oh, yeah, I forgot to announce this. John and I are changing days for reasons of convenience, so from now on you get me on Saturdays and John on Wednesdays. Only, this week you get two of me. Aren't you lucky?