Sunday, September 05, 2010

One Size Does Not Fit All

I've spent a few hours today thinking about how characters handle crises, and I decided to put together a post with my ruminations (in keeping with the blog's name, Writing & Ruminating). And on how some authors manage to get it very right, and why in some other cases, books feel flat.

Update on Wally the dog's health

Today's musing is entirely related to the health crisis involving our younger dog, Wally, who managed to sustain a spinal cord injury yesterday while running into the yard, resulting in paralysis of his hindquarters (extent of damage not yet fully known). Brief update on his health: He had started to make hopeful progress last night, but had worsened by this morning in a concerning sort of way. I've just spoken to the veterinary neurologist, and nothing has changed much, but evidently if we're willing to allow quite a bit of recovery time, it's at least possible that Wally will be fully functional once again. (So it looks as if we will be the proud owners of a special needs dog, since we won't have him put down unless he's suffering, and currently, that's not the case.)

Responses to the situation

So, here's the thing: Those of us in my household have reacted quite differently to the dog's health situation. Neither of the girls is extraordinarily upset, probably because neither of them has seen him since his injury - they were out at the time it happened. They aren't happy about Wally's situation, and they are appropriately concerned, but otherwise are going about their normal lives.

I have reacted the way I typically do to exceedingly bad news, as has hubby. They are very different response patterns. And I figure it's worth talking about them a bit, because they come from very different places, I think.

Hubby and Wally are quite a tightly bonded pair. Wally claimed hubby as his human early on, and according to each of them, the sun rises and sets with the other party (more or less). So it is understandable that hubby is completely devastated by this health issue. His response to this sort of grief is sort of Hamlet-like: he chooses to lie down and think about how upset he is, with occasional breaks to say aloud that he is Very Upset. And truly, I've never seen him this upset - not when Boots (one of our cats) died, or even when he was diagnosed with cancer last year.

My response to this sort of grief is to make myself busy. I have rewritten one of the Shakespeare poems, cleaned the living room, done laundry, taken M shopping on a few back-to-school errands, and planned dinner. I'm taking time to write this post, and then I have a few other tasks in mind - a mix of physically active stuff (like cleaning/organizing) and more intellectually involved things such as reading and additional writing.


When responses collide

So far, we have one source of grief and two extremely different responses to the same emotion. I think about the novel Ordinary People, which I read when I was in high school (before the movie came out, I think, but I'm not positive), and the varying responses to grief exhibited by the surviving family members: anger, survivor's guilt, depression, OCD (hmmm . . . I promise not to take it to the same level as Mrs. Jarrett), etc., and I'm reminded that there's never only one sort of manifestation of a negative emotion.

And the involved characters tend to judge the conduct of others through their own lens. I am sorry to report that part of me wants to shake hubby and tell him to get up and get moving, but for today (at least) I am managing not to do that. Because who am I to say that his way is not the "right" way to deal with this grief/stress? And yet, some part of me has passed judgment, just as I am certain that part of him has labelled me at least partially "uncaring" for being able to get up and go about my day without constant teariness on my part. I don't mean to suggest that we're necessarily right to pass judgments, but I do think it's inherently part of human nature. Which brings me to my literary examples of it being done well:

Going back to Ordinary People by Judith Guest Here be SPOILERS if you haven't read it and still intend to, so skip this paragraph if that's the case In Ordinary People, the mother's response was to become ever more tightly-wound, trying to control absolutely everyone and everything with which she came in contact. Conrad, the surviving brother, felt so guilty about surviving the accident that he became suicidal, and remained extremely withdrawn (at first). The father felt the loss, but tried to keep his family together and happy at first, although he eventually ended up having a sort of midlife crisis. In the end, father and son manage to pull themselves together (individually and collectively), but the mother can't manage it and leaves. The characters all render judgments on the way the others experience grief - the father is horrified that his wife didn't cry at their son's funeral; the mother is horrified that the father is so touchy-feely with his surviving son - she wants them both to be "good little soldiers", more or less; and the son is trying to find his way out of his own hole while also judging the way his parents behave.

Or let us consider, if you will, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling Again, there are SPOILERS in this paragraph if you haven't read these books. Seriously. Skip these paragraphs if you have somehow not yet read these books but intend to. The massively spoilery plot development in Goblet of Fire is that Voldemort returns from the dead, ahead of which process the noble, brave & true Cedric Diggory is killed by Wormtail at Voldemort's command. Harry, who witnesses Cedric's death, is much harder hit by it than nearly any other student; almost as hard, in fact, as Cedric's parents, and at least as hard as Cedric's girlfriend, Cho Chang. In Order of the Phoenix, Harry is a complete angstpuppy for most of the novel - in part because of his grief, in part because of teenage hormones (15 is a bitch, y'all), and in part because of anger related to the Voldemort mind-connection we learn about. He is not just sad - he also has survivor's guilt, plus anger (RAGE, in fact) directed rather indiscriminately at Voldemort, Death Eaters, Dumbledore and even his friends, and a sense of hopelessness that he eventually overcomes through the D.A. (just in time to sustain yet another devastating loss - oh, Rowling, you evil genius you).

Some of Harry's friends - like Hermione, Ron, Fred, George, Neville and Luna - mirror Harry's emotional responses, although to a lesser extent. They are sad because of Cedric's loss, assign blame to Voldemort, and are angry as well, although they are generally hopeful from the outset that they can do something useful, whether it's in comforting Harry (Luna excels at this), diverting him for a bit (hello Weasley twins!) or assisting him in channeling his emotions in a useful direction (all of them). But some of Harry's friends, such as Seamus Finnegan, have been convinced that Harry's off his nut, and they are more confused by Cedric's death than unhappy. And Harry certainly passes judgment on Seamus (and vice-versa) before they finally sort all that out. Cho has all the sadness, none of the anger (as best I can tell), but a desire to work through her grief anyhow. Part of what makes this book feel so real is that the characters all have their own responses/reactions/manners of dealing with things.

A third example is Looking for Alaska by John Green. Again, spoily spoilers. You've been warned. The book counts down to the key event - Alaska's death in a car accident - then counts forward in time from there to examine the reaction of her friends, each of whom manages their grief differently. Among other things, Pudge wants a clear answer as to whether Alaska's death was intentional or accidental. Pudge, the Colonel and even Takumi feel various degrees of guilt or responsibility for Alaska's death, and their responses to their loss, grief and guilt differ, sometimes wildly.

What I'm saying, I suppose, is that if you have a central event that results in an emotional response that's easy to label - say, grief, for purposes of today's analysis - one size does not fit all when writing your characters' responses, actions or reactions. If grief arrives in your novel, and all of the characters are sad to the same degree and/or in the same manner, things are bound to feel flat and unrealistic. If some characters are more deeply affected than others, you are closer to something that feels "real," but in the end, it's the widely divergent responses that make something feel really grounded in real experience even if, as with the Harry Potter books, you are squarely set in a fantasy world.


What response tells you about a character's back story, from family to place of origin

In my case, my father's ancestors on both sides come from old New England stock. (And in some cases, I mean very old. Mayflower old, even.) There's an occasional Welshman from the 1800s or whatever, but mostly they are centuries of New England families old. That Puritan ethic means that no matter what comes your way, you put your head down and keep going. It's how the first settlers up there behaved (based in part on their belief system), and it's an ethic that predominates in the region to this day.

My mother's ancestors are (by and large) more recent immigrants - her mother's side came over from Yorkshire, England, in the early 1900s. Her father's side are mishmash of Scotch-Irish and English ancestors, many of whom spent generations in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Between the Yorkshiremen and the Scotch-Irish, they've got a long history of what I'll call tenacity, although you might prefer "stubbornness", and a long history of putting their heads down and ploughing forward, come hell or high water. (That phrase that is either Joseph P. Kennedy's or Knute Rockne's - "when the going gets tough, the tough get going" - may as well have been a family mantra, is all I'm saying.)

My response to stressors - to get busy and keep busy and forge ahead - is a direct result of my upbringing. It's an ingrained response, really - my brother and I learned it from our parents, who learned it from their parents, and so forth, and so on. It traces itself back to the places and people who were my ancestors, both immediate and distant.


What the point of this line of thought is

My response doesn't just tell you something about me. It tells you something about my upbringing, and about my birth family, and about their ethics and world view. Nothing exists in a vacuum, after all. So if instead of me, I were talking about a character who was seen pulling on her big-girl panties and dealing with it, it would likely tell you something about that character's family and how she was raised, not just something about her.

Let's look, for example at Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books. Hermione is Muggle-born (meaning her family has no history of wizards or witches in it), and her parents are both dentists. Hermione is a highly rational girl whose first line of inquiry usually involves looking things up in books, a response that seems in line with what little we learn about her parents. As dentists, both her parents obviously spent a lot of time in school; it's no wonder that Hermione values education. Readers meet them briefly in Chamber of Secrets, and they are nice people who are proud of their daughter and a bit awed by the wizarding world - as one would be, I presume. We know from conversations Hermione has that her parents are careful people who abide by the law and the rules of dentistry, just as Hermione's first inclination is to abide by the rules established by her parents or by authority figures at Hogwarts. She herself doesn't do magic to correct her teeth, even though she could, because her parents would be upset; however, when hexed by Draco Malfoy in Goblet of Fire, she allows Madam Pomfrey to shorten them just a bit past where they started in order to improve her appearance. She is a rational person, whose rationality is probably influenced at least in part by her parents, who (as medical professionals) probably value things like science and rational inquiry.

Hermione's response to grief is to spring into action and do what she can to improve the situation, whether it's on her own behalf or to benefit other people. Her response to any problem is usually to look it up first (when she is at all able to do so), then follow the directions to fix it (if there are any). If there's not a clear-cut easy answer, she formulates a plan, then carries out. It's all very predictable, once you "know" her, and usually done in a fairly methodical way. Most likely her parents are pretty methodical people - not just in flossing and brushing or in dealing with a dental patient, but also in life.

Ron Weasley, on the other hand, is pretty slapdash about things - whether it's school work or adventuring - and that's a function of his upbringing as well. He's one of seven children and has five older brothers. He comes from a family that's short on cash but long on love, with a father who is very busy at his day job and with his own personal collection of Muggle artifacts and a mother who has to try to make do with little money and lots of children to clothe & feed, on top of caring for her house and garden. Ron's house, the Burrow, is a bit slapdash itself, really, with extra bits magicked on here and there as the family expanded. His practical realism is based in the practical realities of his family's situation, including his parents' no-nonsense approach to life.

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