Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Day 6 - Should Characters Cry?

I knew my books were going to be distributed to Scribd -- a site which both sells ebooks, and also acts as a subscription lending library, something like Netflix -- but I only just now found out the books are all up and on line.  Check out my bookshelf at Scribd. 

In the meantime, today was a busy day.  I dealt with family kerfuffle, got a good writing session in, screwed around a LOT, and managed to get another good writing session in.

Today's Progress: around 1200+ words split between In Flight, and The Man Who Ran Away.  Yes, I skip around. I have too many projects. I work on whichever one is hottest.

Eating, Reading, Watching: Watched a little bit of season 2 of Columbo while eating leftovers.  But mainly I'm still reading The Glass Key.

Which brings me to some commentary:

Should Characters Cry?

There was an interesting moment in the middle of this book -- something Hammett does really well.  Hammett writes pretty emotionless prose.  In this book in particular, he keeps everything in objective voice.  You never know what characters are thinking.  It's like a movie camera, except you do get some sense details -- a few smells, textures, sounds. 

This works exceptionally well when he uses a first person narrator, such as in Red Harvest, where the nameless "Continental Op" writes the story as if giving a report.  It's full of the emotionless but vivid detail of the professional observer.  And The Glass Key is a third person version of this.  You feel as though, even though you are eves dropping on a guy who is unaware of your presence, he still keeps his thoughts and emotions to himself.

And in both Red Harvest and The Glass Key you have this incredibly powerful emotional mid-book event.  Both are enhanced by how much he holds back.  In Red Harvest, it's the death of a party girl, who is kind of like a Bond Girl, in her befriending of the Op, all the while being doomed.  In The Glass Key, though, it's direct, incredible suffering on the part of the hero.

And Hammett breaks one of the "rules" of writing emotion. His character cries. And it's a kind of stunning moment.

Ned Beaumont, tough-guy gangster sidekick, makes a mistake and gets himself grabbed by the rival gang, and he gets the crap beat out of him, hour after hour, day after day.  And he never looses a drop of his moxie.  His face is so swollen, he can't see and can hardly speak, and they have to dump him in a tub of water to bring him around so the boss can talk to him, and then he basically tells the boss to FU.  Not a bit of hesitation, not a chance he'll crack.  They'll beat him until he's dead.

But when he's alone, he crawls into the bathroom and finds an old razor blade -- and he can't even muster the strength to slit his throat. And then, there on the floor of the bathroom, he sobs.

The old rule of thumb I learned about emotional moments like this is that you should never let your character cry. If you want the audience to cry, you need to take the character to the point of crying, but hold back, and then the audience will cry for him.

Hammett takes this same principle and flips it on its head:  He holds back all right, but he gives us an apparently impervious character. A character who does not want us to cry for him. He doesn't want to share anything whatsever of his emotions, and so when they slip out, that's really an effecting moment.  The fact that he holds back until he's alone, and in control of the situation, that just makes us admire him.  It isn't that he's impervious. It's that he has self-control.

And it's the same thing with the Continental Op in Red Harvest.  Even though I'm pretty sure he doesn't cry, the death of the party girl has a sudden brief humanizing effect on him.  We know that this job is costing him personally.

Maybe that's what's really behind the rule about not letting your characters cry: it's about character strength.  We want to see a character's strength.

Even in the fragile gothic maiden, fleeing the monster in her nightie, we don't want to see her cry and break.  We want to see her delve deep and use up every resource she has. We want to see her fight.  Even if her fighting is just running.  She'll run until she can run no more.  And then she'll crawl.  Crying is okay, actually, as long as she keeps going.  Like Ned Beaumont, who after he fails to slit his throat, finds another use for that razor blade.

Pathos isn't about how bad things are, but about how deep your character has dug in and emptied his/her reserves.

See you in the funny papers.


Kyra Halland said...

I've never heard that, about not letting your characters cry. Of course, most of the time I don't have anything to say about it; I'm just the author. There's no "letting" about it.

I guess my reaction as a reader is that if a character doesn't cry under circumstances when most people would, I wonder why they don't and if something's wrong with them.

I treat crying like anything else in writing: use it when it works, and don't overuse it.

The Daring Novelist said...

I think the reason that's a rule of thumb is because so many people expect that having a character cry makes the audience more sympathetic with him/her. And so they use it when they haven't earned it, and the audience then, at best, feels sorry for a particularly weak character.

But there is also the aspect of "drawing the curtain" - in that crying is something private, so it feels too explicit if you force the audience to watch the character cry when it might be better to draw the curtain.

And I think that's a part of the element that Hammett nails: he shields us from unnecessary intrusion into the character's soul, but lets us see what's important.

I suppose that's another reason why some of the "women's fiction" sorts of stories (such as gothic romance) can get away with more -- because it's an intimate view of the character's inner life.

I myself don't avoid having characters cry, I just avoid characters I don't respect, and then I try to respect the character's privacy. Karla cries at the end of act two in The Man Who Did Too Much (which utterly freaks George out, though he doesn't let on).