Monday, March 7, 2011

Thoughts on characters (part 3)...

In which there is no crying…
So I was thinking recently about characters crying in fiction.

Very often, to try and evoke a sense of the character's frustration and build some sympathy, a writer writes about how a character is "fighting back tears" or "breaks down crying" and so on and so forth. I've done it myself. But the thing is, it can lose its effectiveness very quickly.

One thing I recommend very highly when writing is to go back and retype it. I've recently been in a handwriting phase and so everything I write has to be typed up eventually in order to back it up. It seems like a waste of time, seeing as how I could be spending the typing time writing more things, but I find that it gives me some down time to think. I can examine my characters' actions and sort of see ahead to what those actions might lead up to. Plus, it shows me how frequently or infrequently I mention things.

When I'm handwriting, and even sometimes when typing, I tend to be thinking ahead. My writing seems to stretch itself out as I keep chugging along, and I'll be shocked to look back and realize that I've only written a few paragraphs when I think I've written a few pages. And because I think more time has passed than it has, I often find that I've put in things far more frequently than they belong. In my current project, it's one character glaring at another. In a particular past project, it was a character crying.

Crying can be effective, whether it's stoic tears or full on sobbing. But too much gets grating really quickly.

Adults don't cry that much. But then, most adults hopefully don't have to go through whatever you are going to put your characters through, so it could be understood if your characters cry a bit more than normal folks. But you can't show every time they cry.

A lot of your character's life can be covered in a short amount of time when writing and so we are seeing the important snapshots from their life. It's why we don't often see characters in the bathroom or sleeping (unless there is some sort of important event happening then). If every single one of those moments involves the character crying, we lose sympathy for them because we become desensitized to it.

Pick the moments that are important for a character to be crying and just have them cry at those moments. Even as stress builds towards the climax, pick important moments and stick to them. It's an example of fiction having to be unrealistic in order to seem realistic.                               

Using the game that started this whole "character thoughts" pseudo series, Tales of the Abyss was sort of irritating at a few points about this. Take the character (ironically enough named) Tear. She comes into the game as a complete badass. She's an awesome character with a wry sense of humor, great skills, and not really willing to put up with any of Luke's crap. Slowly over the course of the game, she grows to care very deeply for him as he matures. And his maturation is done in such a way that I can see how she came to love him. But with her falling in love with him comes the tears.

There are quite a few stressful happenstances in that game, many of them revolving around potentially fatal experiences. And every single one of them is worthy of tears for all of the characters. But the thing is, we only really see Tear crying, seeing as she's the one closest to Luke.

Since she didn't cry once over the first entire half of the game, seeing her cry the first few times is really effective. We have the understanding this is serious stuff if it would makes Tear cry.

But after the game goes on for another ten hours, it becomes ineffective. We've seen her cry and as things get worse and worse she continues to cry at each new development. So by the time the final confrontation does come around and she's crying at that, we've lost the impact. We don't care nearly as much.

Fortunately, the other characters are also crying at that point, which brings up the effectiveness again. Some characters that we haven't seen show any emotion other than snide sarcasm or clever evasion are suddenly baring their hearts and the heart strings go "twang". They don't do this until the final confrontation and it makes it that much more powerful.

Now, before this, there were several instances where the characters have no way of knowing that they are only three-quarters through the game and thus by all rights, they should be thinking they're going to die and so should be making these speeches and they don't. It's because the writers know that they aren't at the final confrontation yet and chose to hold off. Except with Tear, which drives me nuts.

My suggestion? Pick two or three moments in the story that are the most gut-wrenching and stick to those. Now, this can be hard to do during a first draft (especially for a pantser like me), but it's something to look for in a second draft. Pick those two or three moments and that's where the characters are going to cry if they're going to cry at all. Even if lesser moments come before and a real person would actually cry there, avoid it. Yes, people might cry a great deal before and after a loved one dies from a terminal illness. I know I have. But fiction is not real life. Have an emotion moment with the loved one in the hospital and another after the funeral. And that's it.

Are there exceptions? Most certainly. Is this healthy behavior? In real life, no. Human beings have emotions for a reason and we cry for a reason. It's good for us. But no one likes a crybaby and characters have it tough in that we judge them much more harshly and much more quickly. Even if they only cry every time it would be normal for a person to cry, because that makes up a good percentage of the time we spend with them, it feels like they are crying at the drop of a hat.

Anybody have any thoughts on this? Arguments? This is entirely based on my own preferences, so by all means, tell me what you think!  

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