Emotions are a key part of making a character come to life; without them, the figures in our story would be just that, figures. But I thought that given the recent release of Mockingjay Part 1, and given that we happen to be discussing the Divergent trilogy on the blog, now would be a good time to talk about when a character’s psyche is no longer a relaxing place for a mental vacation.
We all know the feeling of reading a fun, exciting, series, and the hitting *that* book, after the poor MC - main character, for those of you new to the online writing community - has shot a friend in the head/survived two fights to the death in a futuristic arena/ witnessed Lord Voldemort’s return. Clearly it wouldn’t be realistic for someone to live through traumatic events and go whistling on their merry unchanged way , but how much of the darkness can we include before it becomes suffocating, before it becomes ‘too much’ and the character is ‘unlikable’?
The unhelpful answer is that ‘too much’ is a matter of personal taste. I’ve heard narrative devices and strong feelings compared to spices. A little adds flavor, too much ruins the food. Sounds reasonable, right? What needs to be taken into account, though, is that different people have different tolerances for spiciness. Take my dad and me. He likes to go to make-your-own stir fry restaurants and put in a bunch of jalapenos so the juice soaks everything, whereas I down multiple glasses of water if there’s so much as a weird herb on my pepperoni pizza. Likewise, two people can have opposite perspectives on the portrayal of, say, guilt. They could read the same book, and one could say the character read cold-hearted for not reacting enough, and another could claim the character was too angsty. So what are we writers to do? It’s impossible to cater to every reader’s palate.
And I think the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can start writing real characters. No, not everyone will ‘like’ the MC. No, the MC’s feelings are probably not going to touch everyone in the right way. But if said emotions are truly the MC’s, the character can be a compelling one that people come to love, “warts and all”. If we stop trying to make the perfectly likable character that nobody will complain is too tough or too sensitive or too [adjective] or not [adjective] enough, we might just make characters who are lovable. In the last post Ria mentioned she wasn’t originally drawn to Tris Prior but came to care for her after accepting her strengths and weaknesses. Essentially, she’s come to love Tris for who she is. As writers, we have the power to delve deep into a character’s mind and soul so readers can do just that. Our portrayal of characters can be a tool for expanding empathy and helping others to look outside their own perspective and love their neighbors as themselves and so forth.
However… a tool will do the most good if it’s properly utilized. While a novel about someone drowning in grief/guilt/depression/anxiety/self-loathing/[insert other negative here] done well can make people care, a novel where such things are done very poorly can elicit less positive reactions, such as urges to strangle the heroine and anyone like her. Which brings us back to our original question of ‘how much is too much?’ I’ve spent a lot of this post philosophizing about How These Things Are Subjective And Truly Loving Someone Doesn’t Come From A Checklist Of Traits One Likes, but when it comes down to it, this is supposed to be a writing tip, and there are some reader reactions that come down not to our characters but to the way we present them, so there are a few do’s and don’ts to showing negative character emotions.
- Use the small stuff. It could be as simple as little clues as to characters’ demeanor, how hold themselves, how they speak.
- Let it lurk like a shadow. Whether you’re beginning with a tragic event and then having the character dealing with it afterward or having the cause of what the character dealing with become apparent later in the novel, there will be a period where the character is dealing with it. During that period, the storyworld keeps spinning and your character keeps living out the plot, but there’s a tinge coloring the scenes, a menacing in spite of. The warrior fights on in spite of his fallen comrades and his part in their deaths. The anxiety sufferer goes about her life in spite of the dread that squeezes her chest.
- Have paragraphs upon pages of potentially whiny interior monologue and not much else. While it’s certainly lifelike for someone to sit around thinking about their problems, we’d do well to remember the Clive James quote that “Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.” Too often a character is in a situation deserving of sympathy but gets none from the reader because the author wrote the character in such a way that it seems like the character is demanding it.
- Have your character cry every other page. I’ve read that since most people don’t cry easily, bursting into tears quickly gets to be a repetitive way to show sadness. (But seeing as I’m the kind of person who cried during Winnie The Pooh: Piglet’s Big Movie, I’ll have to take their word for it…)
This is by no means an exhaustive list of tips; there’s scores of other blog posts on the subject. If you’re writing an MC going through tough times, feel free to share in the comments!
~ Miri Williams
~ Miri Williams