Monday, November 2, 2009

Emotional outbursts

From characters, not writers. I recently read a critique of a story which included this caution, since the author explained that the characters (who were the gods of mythology) were extremely emotional.

Be careful with this. Your gods may come across as unstable teenagers with insane emotional reactions. In mythology the gods were very reaction-prone, but keep in mind those are old stories, colored by the storyteller to entertain an audience that did not have TV or movies or cheap books.

This made sense to me, since an excess of emotion can easily edge over into melodrama. On the other hand, the less-is-more approach doesn’t always work. One reason I love Gone With the Wind
is Scarlett’s passion, especially in the early scene where Ashley rejects her and she smashes a china statue. It doesn’t come off as unrealistic or melodramatic. So, what makes the difference?

1. The character has a good reason to act this way.

Scarlett is an unstable teenager. If she had been a powerful being who had lived for hundreds of years, like the Valar of The Silmarillion
, I’d expect her to be more mature, but she’s sixteen and in calf love, so she gets a pass on her volatile behavior.

2. The character is not always dramatic and emotional.

What’s interesting about Scarlett’s behavior in that part of Gone with the Wind is that she doesn’t continue being violent and out of control. Instead, after she realizes that Ashley doesn’t want her and that the other guests are talking about her flirtatious behavior, she closes herself off instead. And in a detached way, she decides to marry a man she despises, just to show that she doesn’t care about Ashley.

She’s still irrational, of course, still making decisions that are very wrong and which will end up having repercussions for the rest of her life. But she’s doing this in a way that’s completely different from her previously open, emotional state. There’s variety, in other words – and a hint that despite her immaturity, she’s capable of being cold and manipulative.

3. The character is contrasted with others who are more rational.

Contrasting volatile characters with calm stoic ones can be a great deal of fun for writers. I enjoy the interactions between the main characters of Matthew Woodring Stover’s Iron Dawn – the heroine, Barra, is short-tempered and often explosive, but her partners are both calm and steady in their own ways.

Sober dispassionate characters act as great foils for the more emotional ones.

4. The scene itself is more than just an emotional deluge.

When the emotion takes center stage without interesting characterization or humor or a gripping plot as counterbalance, it can seem angsty or soap-opera-esque.

I recently read a Meet Cute scene where the hero pays for a few of the heroine’s groceries after his dog pounces on her in a store. Her response was to get worked up and call him a “horrible man”, which is not really the kind of passion that endears me to a protagonist. Charged confrontations, occuring for good reasons, usually go down better than teenage tantrums.


NANO OUTPUT : 1396 words. Got to write more!


Mary Witzl said...

Nothing irritates me more in books than people who lose their tempers when they have no business doing this. The writer is obviously manipulating them and it makes me feel as though I'm reading about a fictitious character, not enjoying an interesting glimpse into a believable, realistically depicted life.

Hazardgal said...

Another great post Marian. One of my favorite books is A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. The emotional seesaw is worth the ride in that one.