Through My Lens: A quarterly blog for Genre Talk
Lloyd A. Meeker
— Through My Lens is just that – a glimpse of my thoughts, questions and opinions about writing craft issues, conditioned by my idiosyncratic worldview, my tastes, my perspective, my sensibilities. You’re in no way obliged to agree with me. In fact, I’m very interested to hear other perspectives. I welcome any comments that stimulate civil discourse.
Pity or Respect? The Problem of Maximum Capacity, and the Difference Between Suffering and Struggle
About ten years ago I was taught that a good story needs a well-motivated protagonist who acts to overcome obstacles in pursuit of his goal.
It’s hard work for an author to create a well-motivated character who is clever and resourceful, and hard work to create obstacles for him that are relevant to the story. Sometimes the temptation for the author is to himself slide backwards from maximum capacity and settle for the convenient emotional shorthand that too often passes for story.
For the author, the object is to keep the character functioning at his maximum capacity. That means doing the very best he can do with what he’s got. How often have you read a chapter in the story where the character doesn’t necessarily behave out of character, but doesn’t think, doesn’t look around, doesn’t ask an important question, doesn’t ACT, even if it’s just deciding something? That character is not performing at maximum capacity, and while the fault is not with the character but with the author, it’s the character that takes the hit from the reader. “I just wanted to shake some sense into him!” they say in their review.
The ultimate example of a character not acting at maximum capacity is when he doesn’t act at all. Things have to happen to him in order to for the story to move forward.
Acting at maximum capacity is the difference between suffering and struggle. We might have a well-motivated character – let’s say our character knows he has to find a solution to his financial troubles or lose his beloved animal rescue shelter. But if he stays stuck in worry and misery and angst without actually doing anything to save the shelter, then all you have is a character suffering. There is no struggle because the character takes no action to change his reality, does not initiate anything that might be even a temporary solution to his problems. It’s difficult for me to respect that passivity unless there’s a compelling reason for it.
See how different that feels if the character tries something and fails. And tries something else — and fails again. It’s easy for me to respect that character, and root for his success. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” is very different from “If Life gives you lemons, give up because someone is sure rescue you.”
Suffering is merely pain and misery. Everyone’s got their share. Struggle likely includes suffering, but goes well beyond it. It requires ingenuity, initiative and effort. I may feel pity for a passive character, but I don’t respect him until he gets off his emotional ass and tries to do something (struggles) to solve his problem.
A savvy reader will not be satisfied by his passivity no matter how painful his suffering. I mentioned convenient emotional shorthand earlier and it will often rear its ugly head exactly in this difference between suffering and struggle.
How many stories have you read where the first two or three chapters are all about how the MC has been hammered by luck, fate, or love – or all three? Uh-huh. Is this so we feel empathy for him? Would you enjoy being inspired to admiration or respect for him once in a while instead of pity? I would.
Let’s say the MC of story X is fired from his job. He comes home early looking for support from his husband of one year, only to find him in bed with another man. His husband tells him he’s moving out with his new guy so our MC will have to renew the lease for the expensive apartment on his own when it comes up for renewal in a month’s time. Oh, and he’s taking all the nice furniture. And the wedding gifts. Poor guy. We pity him. But do we respect him? Not yet, that’s for sure.
Everything so far has happened TO our MC. He’s done nothing but get fired and walk in on his cheating husband. Let’s say he’s fired from his job unjustly. He just hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s still done nothing.
He stumbles to a bar, a bar he’s never been to before. It’s his third bar and he’s pretty drunk by the time he gets there. The bartender refuses to serve him alcohol but starts sobering the poor guy up. (Note that? The. Poor. Guy. that’s pity!) Well, don’t give up hope, because it’s really the poor guy’s lucky day. The hunky bartender is really a werewolf and can smell that this lovely drunk in front of him is his destined mate.
The story unfolds. Hunky alpha werewolf pursues our MC, who even after a month of the most glorious sex ever with hunky werewolf bartender, still has trust issues because he’s been BETRAYED, and is CAUTIOUS and TOO PROUD to accept hunky werewolf’s invitation to move in with him even though our passive MC is about to be evicted. Check back in the plot right now – has the MC even done anything about getting his furniture out of his apartment, at least the stuff bad hubby didn’t take with him? I’ll bet not…
As angsty as this set up is, our MC still has done nothing to solve his own problems. He may be proud, he may be distrustful, he may be wounded – but he hasn’t done a thing FOR HIMSELF. Well, maybe he’s bought himself a pumpkin spice caramel latte for comfort, and temporarily lost himself in the sweet creamy goodness.
We may pity this character. He’s had a hell of a raw deal, it’s true. Even his pride has been wounded. And oh, how he has suffered. For chapters. In fact, he’s still suffering, except for all the fabulous sex. But do I respect him? Not a chance. He has not overcome a single obstacle in pursuit of his goal.
In fact, I’m not yet clear on what his goal is. Survival? Self-respect? Does he want to stay in the apartment? Does he want to sue to get his old job back? Does he want to teach his ex a lesson? Each of those goals would take the story in a different direction, because — Goals supported by Action causes Things to Happen.
Our MC hasn’t given much indication of capacity of any kind so far, let alone maximum capacity. No, our MC remains a maudlin puddle of passivity and wounded baby bird suffering and it’s the author who has allowed him to stay there.
This is not to say that a character has to constantly undertake spectacular efforts to overcome impossible odds. If the author has done his job right, what constitutes maximum capacity for a particular character is going to be unique to that particular character.
A brilliant example of this is Marshall Thornton’s character in the Pinx Video mysteries, Noah Valentine. On the surface Noah seems to be the absolute definition of passivity. His default position is to let things happen by default. He keeps himself half-removed from the flow of life around him, avoiding confrontation and even discomfort. But that’s on the surface. Underneath Noah is an extremely proactive character. He avoids confrontation with the strategic brilliance of an army general. He avoids disclosing his HIV status by avoiding life in general and social life in particular. He tenaciously uses his passivity as a defense.
There is no convenient emotional shorthand in Thornton’s stories. One of the many reasons his books are good is that he doesn’t allow his characters to act at less than maximum capacity—and he’s in control of that capacity.
What do I mean by convenient emotional shorthand? Let’s take the concept of being triggered. Once a character’s old wound is triggered, he can do whatever he wants, absolved of any responsibility for fallout from his behavior. At the word “triggered” we are expected to clutch our pearls and stagger a little as we collapse on the settee in the parlor, fanning ourselves. Acting at maximum capacity, a character is still responsible for the consequences of his actions. That earns a reader’s respect.
Let’s take our passive human hero who’s fated to become the mate of the alpha werewolf. We know that the big misunderstanding is going to be the MC’s, not the hunky werewolf’s. The hunky werewolf is too sensible, too responsible, too determined. Too hooked by fate. His motivation is clear and focused.
Our MC sees our hunky werewolf bartender embracing another man. Our MC was betrayed right at the beginning of the story and guess what – he’s TRIGGERED. He jumps to all kinds of conclusions which, if he were acting at maximum capacity (or even just his age) he would never do. He would know that there has to be a logical explanation for it other than infidelity. But hey, this fictional MC hasn’t acted at maximum capacity for the entire book, so it’s no surprise he fails yet again. But now, finally he takes action. He turns on his proud, wounded, self-absorbed, triggered heel and storms out.
Now the concept of being triggered in present circumstances by past trauma is utterly legitimate. It happens all the time. But it has been used over and over again in our stories as a magical catalyst for the Big Misunderstanding without much development in either character or plot to support it. It’s just a convenient emotional shorthand. And in my reading there’s never been any consequence to his action other than a couple more chapters of suffering. That’s not a story — that’s just drama. Not once has the alpha werewolf said, “You know, we’re fated mates, but let’s push back our mating bite a few full moons while you get some therapy.”
Triggering can be tragic. A friend of mine lived with his female partner for years before they got married five or six years ago. My friend, A, is one of the most loyal men I know. His wife, B, was cheated on in a previous relationship. A and B work together in the same successful business. About a month ago, B saw some texts on A’s phone, and was triggered. She jumped to the conclusion that A was having an affair with someone else. She confronted him without listening, deciding he was guilty until proven innocent. It nearly ended their relationship. Fortunately, they sought counseling and worked through it, but that kind of suspicion is ugly and damaging. And the damage doesn’t go away in a hurry.
For me, leaping to a conclusion about fidelity (based on momentary appearance without offering an opportunity for clarification) is a profoundly unsatisfying driver for the Big Misunderstanding. Yet we are fed it over and over again. It may work well for you, but for me, it’s just convenient emotional shorthand showing an author’s lack of effort, or maybe haste to get the book published.
Sometimes the story really is about fidelity. Then maybe it fits. But I’m really done with groundless Big Misunderstandings in which one character throws a hissy fit worthy of a self-absorbed 17-year-old, stomps around in a tantrum, yet never has to face the wreckage caused by his behavior. That takes me out of respect, and even out of pity into disdain. Disdain for me equals DNF.
Keeping a character functioning at maximum capacity in meeting obstacles that are relevant to that character’s growth is hard work. That requires interesting obstacles. Ingenious perseverance. Struggle, not just suffering. That’s an author’s job.
Convenient emotional shorthand kills a story for me. Decades ago I heard the anecdote about the joke-teller’s convention — all anyone did was call out the number of the joke and because everyone knew which joke that was, everyone laughed.
I spend too much money on stories like that: featuring Character 21, except he’s a Navy SEAL with red hair. For extra originality he’ll have a post-discharge beard! Oooh! He’ll meet Character 22, who’s a successful investment banker too busy for love… but they both will have secrets… and someone is trying to bring 22 to ruin… and they’ll have Big Misunderstanding 3a, but to keep it fresh 22 will see 21 kissing a guy IN UNIFORM as 22 has always been a little suspicious of the Navy stories 21 has never told…
So, my rule of thumb is:
Maximum capacity struggle to overcome obstacles = respect and empathy for three-dimensional characters, satisfaction and enjoyment in the story.
Passivity and suffering = pity and boredom, feeling empty when finished.
Convenient emotional shorthand, predictable obstacles and cookie-cutter misunderstandings = DNF.
Here is one of my favorite poems. To me, the last stanza is an author’s job description — we work hard to become better writers, but as we grow we also set new standards for ourselves. We never win, only grow. This growth is what I strive for, even though I don’t always enjoy the struggle.
The Man Watching
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness, and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we could let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong, too, and not need names.
When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Robert Bly, trans.
Where to Find Lloyd: WebsiteAnd that’s it for us for now. Thanks for joining us, everyone! If you’d like to keep tabs on Genre Talk and never miss a post, hop on over and like our Facebook page, join our Facebook group, and check out our web page.