Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Those Sobbing Characters

This is going to be a short post today because of Thanksgiving in just a few days.  I still have lots to do, and I want to sleep. 

Anyway, this is a topic I’ve been thinking about off and on since I heard this quote from Orson Scott Card.

“If your characters cry, your readers won’t have to; if your characters have good reason to cry, and don’t, your readers will do the weeping.”

I understand the reasoning behind this advice.  Crying may seem like an easy way to show emotion and elicit an emotional response from the reader, but it doesn’t work and in fact, can make the character annoying if he/she cries too much.  Crying itself isn’t enough to show the emotion, the reader needs to feel the buildup of emotion and the reasons behind it.  In other words, it is more important to focus on the internal emotion of the character and not just use external cues to express it. 

But this advice bothers me for three reasons.

1.   I don’t like advice that speaks in absolutes.  While it may be best to avoid crying, there are going to be moments when crying is the right response.

2.  It feels a little calculating, as if this advice suggests that the writer tries to manipulate the reader into a specific emotional response.  I understand that storytelling is usually about forging an emotional connection with the reader, but I think that emotional bond should come honestly.  Personally, I try to capture the authentic emotional response of the character, and if the readers connect with the character, they too should feel it. 

3.  It reinforces the idea that crying (even in real life) is wrong and/or a sign of weakness.  There is definitely a preference for the emotionless, stoic characters.  These characters are believed to be stronger than their more weepy counterparts. As an emotional person who, I think, is strong, this perception drives me nuts.  Crying is a healthy, natural reaction to stress, fear, and grief.  From my experience, a good cry can relieve all those negative emotions and leave my mind clear to focus on the course of action that needs to be taken.  I get strength from crying; sometimes I even feel empowered by it.  It is a release.  I wish more books would portray crying in this way rather than showing a sobbing character falling apart.  I think we need to change our social attitude in regards to crying, and the best place to do that is in stories.

Crying in stories does need to be limited.  If a character cries in every scene, it does become annoying and it also loses the emotional impact.  But I do not think that crying should be eliminated completely.  Just show the emotion behind the tears and use it sparingly.  Like everything else, there needs to be balance.

So I’m curious, please share your thoughts on characters who cry.





  1. I just finished eleanor and park (awesome book, but LOADS of swearing) and park cried all the time. Not sobbing, just wet eyes. It was pretty great, actually.

    1. I've heard great things about that book. I'll have to give it a read.

  2. I have never really thought about crying in books. I can't think of a scene where it bothered me or where I thought it should or shouldn't have been there. I think usually when I read about crying it's a tearing up, or a sniffle - not usually a lot of description of heaving sobs. But I know there have been scenes in the movies in which I absolutely could not hold it together once the character on screen was crying (Sally Field's monologue in Steel Magnolias comes to mind) and I wonder if this is one of those things that really works in the movies because it functions almost as a social cue. On the other hand, you have to actually *describe* crying in a book and that intellectualizes it, which might reduce its impact.

    I love your point about how we view crying. I have always cried very easily - from onions or sadness or anger or nerves, my eyes are fountains. I hate it, socially. But I also tend to feel better after a good cry (except for onion crying - that just hurts!).

    I don't write a sad scene with the goal to make the reader cry. I just write what I think is the truth of that scene so that hopefully the reader will understand it.

    1. Onions make me cry too. Sometimes I cut onions to hide real crying, so I don't freak my kids out. For some reason, mom crying is scary.

      I like your point about how book crying intellectualizing it. When I first heard this advice, I thought about all the movies where characters have cried where I cried along with them. But I do think there is difference between the two medias.

  3. Yeah, I've gotten criticized before for having my characters cry too often. I was a little annoyed at the time, especially since I'm a pretty frequent crier myself. I do agree that too much can be annoying, and that too many crying scenes can reduce the impact once you get to a big emotional point.

    As for OSC's advice, I do pretty much disagree. I think it's kind of weird thing to say, actually - I think that whether or not the character cries has very little to do with the overall emotional impact of any given scene. You're definitely right that any advice given in absolutes is troublesome.

    Finally, I absolutely agree that there is a lot of shame toward crying. Especially for someone like me for whom crying is kind of a reflex, it's not a good idea for me to try to bottle it up. I absolutely agree that we should change the opinion of crying in our society, especially all the negative attitude about boys crying.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. I agree that crying has little to do with the emotional impact of the scene. Crying alone can't carry the emotion, but I don't think having it diminishes it either. I couldn't agree more about the negative attitudes towards boys crying. I think boys tend to be prone to more violent behavior because society has denied them crying as a natural release for those pent up negative emotions.


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