Thursday, December 6, 2012

... But Maybe Not Too Much

Two weeks ago, MaryAnn wrote an excellent post about suffering in POV characters. She said,
"I think making the characters suffer ups the stakes, it makes you feel that they have a lot to lose and that success isn’t a given, in fact, it is almost impossible, and that ratchets of the tension while making the hero feel vulnerable, more relatable."
I absolutely agree. However, over the summer, I read a couple of books with characters who go through extreme suffering, and instead of making me care more about the characters, it frustrated me. So what's the deal - did the authors take it to far, or am I expecting too much of my favorite characters?

The two books were The Queen of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner, and Fire, by Kristin Cashore.. Without revealing any spoilers, I can tell you that both Gen and Fire suffer crushing losses throughout the course of the story. I should also note that I think both these tragedies needed to happen to these characters; it's not the losses, it's how they're portrayed that somehow bothered me.

Grief isn't a pretty thing. It's a swirling, tar-like mass of sorrow and rage and regret. It takes a long, long time to heal from such a thing, to get back to some semblance of normalcy. I know that personally. So why didn't I have more empathy for Gen and Fire?

To be honest, I'm still not entirely sure (this is why even though I'd read the books in summer, I hadn't gotten around to writing the post yet). Is it because I expect more from characters, especially those otherwise portrayed as heroes? Well, maybe a teeny bit. I mean, I would like to think I have a more nuanced appreciation of character growth than that, but maybe I spent too many years watching Disney movies.

Maybe it's because Fire and Gen's grieving comes at bad times for their kingdoms. Both have to be scolded by friends or relatives to leave their grief and pay attention to the troubles around them. It's probably unfair for me to be irritated by that, too. I mean, in the times that I've grieved, there hasn't been an invasion of monsters to California or anything, so it's not like I can empathize on that level.

Or maybe it's because of something else. During the original run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, you may remember that Gene Rodenberry died, and Rick Berman took over as executive producer. My uncle, the biggest Trekkie I've ever me, complained that after Berman had taken the helm, the show had devolved into the bridge crew squabbling throughout every episode. "I don't tune in to watch that sort of thing," he told me. "I started watching Star Trek because it presents a hopeful view of the future, where we can actually work together to achieve results."

And maybe that's a big part of why I read traditional fantasy. I want to see characters overcome impossible situations, to handle every challenge with grace. To act in the ways I wish I could.

I'm not advocating perfection. Perfection is boring. But I do wonder now how to hold that balance, to make characters realistic, to portray suffering without becoming maudlin.

If you've read those books, did those moments frustrate you too, or not? To you as a writer, do you want to try to achieve a balance of those two elements, or do you find one more important than the other? And have you come across any well-done portrayals of suffering in POV characters?


  1. I haven't read these two books, but I had a similar reaction to Mockingjay. Katniss suffered too much, and although I understand why she would wallow in grief, that isn't what I wanted to read about.

    Great Post!!

  2. I haven't read Fire yet. I think I need to reread Graceling first. But I have read all that's been written of the Queen's Thief series. When I first started The Queen's Thief, I totally agree with what you just said. The only thing that kept me reading was Susan's glowing recommendation, because it was absolutely depressing. However, I felt amply rewarded for sticking with it. By the end, I felt like Gen was vindicated and back on top of his game--though it's true he was still dealing with depression, I no longer doubted that he would overcome.

    With Mockingjay, I was good with it, except, as I've discussed before, the glossing over one of the deaths received. I wanted more sorrow about that one, not less.

    It's all about hope. I can put up with a wretched amount of suffering, as long as I have hope that the book is going to soar to equally lofty heights of some sort of amazingness in the end.

    A great example of that is the Sword of Truth series. I never in my life read a darker book than the first one, and I nearly put it down many times, but I just couldn't leave Richard like that...I was thrilled by the way it all turned out. Loved the book, Richard became one of my top heroes. But that was just the beginning. I read several more of the books and though the suffering never got that intense again, it just kept coming and coming, and finally I couldn't take it anymore. I just didn't care enough about the characters to slog through any more. So I guess for me, duration of suffering makes a bigger difference than intensity.

    1. I had to step away from Wizard's First Rule SO many times. The entire chucnk where Richard was with Denna was gut-wrenching. I have never experienced such dehumanization at such close range before in my life. I don't know why I kept reading, but I made it through, and Richard immediately became the one of MY favorite heros, too. I'll be honest, I've taken that series VERY slowly. One book every couple of years. I can't handle more than that. They are very emotionally charged stories, and like you said, it's hard to care after a while.

    2. I completely agree - if it hadn't been for Susan's glowing review, I would have never gone for the third book in the Thief series - and what a tragedy that would have been.

      The Sword of Truth series, eh? Hmm... maybe I'll give it a try later when I'm in the mood for something that intense.

  3. Yes, characters can totally suffer too much. Bella in New Moon essentially curled up and died. Grow a pair woman. I think the secret to it, is like writing descriptions. Add the suffering lightly within the actions. Make the suffering a catalyst for action, not a stumbling block, and balance the sadness with hope or humor.

  4. I loved the book Fire, but not so much the character. I think it's because in the beginning, she is independent, and reminds me so much of Katsa from Graceling. Then, very suddenly, she becomes weak, afraid, and completely dependent on other people kicking her in the butt to get her to do the right thing. My expectations for her were totally shattered. I think if she had started out less like Katsa and more like Fire, I might not have felt so betrayed. I still enjoyed the book, I just didn't love it as much as Graceling.

    I haven't read The Queen of Attolia, and in fact, I'm not sure what my reaction would be. Grief is an uncomfortable issue to deal with. I wonder if it has something to do with experiencing the character's grief at close range that makes it difficult to get through.

    Then again, look at books like The Hunger Games. Without giving too much away (for the people that haven't read/watched/heard what happens) TONS of people close to Katniss die in the course of the three books. It hits her pretty hard, and she mourns passionately, but she never loses focus on what she needs to do. That is what made me want to keep reading. I had faith that Katniss would hold it together (probably better than I would have) no matter what happened. She is strong, even when she's weak. Maybe it's that quality that Fire lacked.

    Excellent post Sabrina! Very thought provoking.

  5. Sabrina, I haven't read those books and I don't read a lot of traditional fantasy, so I probably don't have the same expectations of characters. But this post made me chuckle thinking about Twilight. I think it's the 2nd book (or is it the 3rd?) when Bella is basically depressed through the whole book and does idiotic things to get Edward's attention. That and the 4th were my favorites in the series, and most people I've talked to think it's the weakest. So maybe I'm unusually forgiving of wallowing characters. (Though I admit the plot and the choices she makes are ridiculous. I think I just like reading about feelings. And I probably only liked the 4th because I got to read about a heroine having a miserable pregnancy.)


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