After writing last week about music that makes me cry, I spent the last week thinking about crying, which led to characters crying, which led to novels that have made me cry, which led me back to quality art and how emotions must be a part of the criteria for quality. But how?
My first thought involved a recent horror movie much in the same vein as The Blair Witch Project, i.e. made on a shoestring budget and now raking in the big bucks because it’s scaring the bejeezus out of audiences. I’m not a big horror movie fan. I don’t enjoy being frightened. It’s not entertaining to me. But I love suspense, especially psychological suspense. Much as I hate to admit it, horror and suspense movies are closely related. They’re both scary, but in different ways. One uses external things to frighten characters and the viewers, the other uses internal things. In the former, the viewer really doesn’t have to invest emotionally or intellectually in the characters; just as the external things or forces affect the characters, so do they affect the viewer. But in the latter, the story demands that investment. Character motivation and behavior create the suspense. For example, I watched an episode of the excellent Criminal Minds last night in which one character, a young man, fears that he’s descending into homicidal psychosis. He’s at the age when serial killers are thought to begin acting out their early fantasies. He’s also an extremely intelligent teen who seeks out the genius PhD on the BAU team for help. Meanwhile, the BAU team works a serial killer case that mirrors the teen’s worst fears about himself. What will the teen do? Is he actually the serial killer? This plotline created the most intense suspense for me, even more than the serial killer case. The ending was a brilliant use of editing and paying off my emotional investment in the teen. I was scared for the teen, not of him.
A writing “rule”: if the character cries, the reader won’t. There’s a corollary rule for screenwriting, i.e. never have a character cry more than once or twice in the story. The thinking is that if the emotion is acted out on screen, viewers won’t feel it. I tend to disagree, but I still agree with the rule. It’s annoying to see a character crying all the time. On the other hand, if I cry while I’m writing a scene, chances are my readers will also be affected emotionally. I think the same rule applies for emotional expression of all kinds. On the other hand, how a character expresses emotion, or doesn’t, is an important character detail. Is he comfortable expressing emotion? Does she repress her emotions? Or does the character only express one emotion, e.g. anger? Character development needs to take into account the emotional being of the character, and not in cliched ways but in genuine, human ways. How was his emotional being molded and shaped? By whom? A character’s psychology includes his emotional being.
What novels have made you cry? My most recent tearful experience with a book was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’m still not certain if I cried from relief, sorrow or fear at the end of that novel. I felt all those emotions. Another deep emotional experience with a novel was The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. The novel possessed an intense suspense in the bomb-defusing sections, and for me, a growing horror in the other sections about the English patient. As I read, my hatred and disgust for Almasy grew until the revelation about his torment and the reason he had not returned for Katherine. That left me gasping, like Ondaatje had punched me in the chest, followed by tears. Brilliant.
Humans need stories. Whether it is for us to learn about life, about how to live, about other people, or to experience the range of emotions we’re capable of, stories give us far more than they take…..