Sunday, 25 January 2015

Characters extra - piling on the Angst

Characters Extra – Piling on the Angst (30 October 2012)


The part on character history in the previous post had me thinking I may need to clarify or build upon it. This is aimed mainly at the romance genre, rather than crime (suspense, intrigue), but I do think the advice probably goes for both in the pocket novel market.

It is too easy, when you create your heroine (or hero) to pile on the angst in order to make your readers sympathise with them. My own heroines are often orphans, but I generally put their sad events way back in the past so that by the time the story begins, they're still orphans but they're also getting on with their lives.

It can be too easy to pile on the angst so much that in the end your reader actually thinks, 'No? Really?'

Recently I read something in which the angst was severely piled on. (I'm not saying where or when, only to clarify that it wasn't in one of the recent pocket novels I've been reading for research and nor was it in any of my workshops). However, I'm going to be pretty vague here about what story it was in case the author does happen to pop in.

The story detailed everything horrible that had happened to the main character from the day they were born. By the end of the list of really unfortunate occurrences I was actually in tears of laughter, despite this supposedly being a terrible back story designed to make us root for this character.

It reminded me of that old joke about the man who was told that his house had burned down, his wife and children had died, and on and on.  In the end it becomes a travesty of tragic occurrences that just makes the audience laugh, thinking that no one could be that unlucky (I think the punch line was about the delivery of the bad news or maybe it was that the dog survived).

Now, don't get me wrong. I know some people have dreadful lives where awful things do happen to them, and I'm not undermining that. But that's the thing about real life and fiction. Fiction has to make sense, real life doesn't.

Having said that, the human spirit is indomitable, and people do survive the most dreadful things. But if you dwell too much on the bad stuff in your story, it's going to be hard to get on with that story because your reader is going to wonder how the main character can even manage to get up in the morning. Also, if you're writing a light romance it doesn't work if all your character's family were junkies and they were put on the game at the age of 12 (not a real story - as far as I know). Despite what Pretty Woman promised, most prostitutes don't end up with Richard Gere.

Remember that you're writing romance to entertain readers. Some of those people may have gone through, or be going through, the bad stuff you write about, hence their need to escape into a fantasy world, so I think we have a duty to ensure it's handled with subtlety and sensitivity.

It helps to have any bad stuff  in the past, but also to limit what that bad stuff was to one or two things. That way by the time the story starts, the character may still be haunted by what happened, but they're far enough away from it to be surviving from day to day.   For example, if your heroine was in an abusive relationship, it's enough for the reader to know that, and that it makes her afraid to start new relationships. You don't need to chart every slap and punch and broken nose that her ex inflicted on her, because then it becomes gratuitous. Readers can fill in the gaps.

This is not to say that you can't deal with serious subjects. In one of Penny Jordan's novels, the heroine was the daughter of a prostitute who died of a drug overdose when the heroine was little. It was just dealt with in a subtle and sensitive way so that it didn't overshadow the main romance, even though it clearly had an effect on the heroine's self-image. By the end of the book you know the heroine deserved her happy ending, but you didn't feel that her life had been a vale of tears. She had overcome the bad stuff to become successful (even before the hero came along imo).

So keep it subtle, keep it sensitive, and beware piling on the angst to the point that the reader is taken out of the story because the character's bad luck seems too ludicrous to be real.

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