A week ago Barbara O’Neal gave us a wonderful post called Positive Thinking for Writers. It started me thinking. Writers aren’t the only ones who could benefit from a positive outlook.
Stories have intentions. They have moods. They send signals to readers that set readers’ expectations and influence their orientation to the tale, to themselves and to life, at least for a time. We could say these signals are sent by the author’s voice, but more precisely they come from how protagonists behave, speak, think and feel on the page.
How does your protagonist see himself or herself? If I were to ask you, you’d probably say that your main character is yearning, challenged, responsible and active. Am I right? Then why is it that so many protagonists come across instead as suffering, helpless, weak and lost? If you don’t believe me come and read my slush pile, or just head to your local independent bookstore and sample what’s on the shelves. Many protagonists are not lit by a spirit of compassion but are instead infected with woe.
Many stories I read are built on a foundation of pathos. See how sad things are! Watch my character rise and triumph in spite of that! While that sounds okay, it is really saying that these authors deep down believe that we are all helpless. The author is saying in effect, poor me!
Compassion is different than pathos. Rather than poor me, it says poor you! It allows plot circumstances to be a bitch and personal journeys to be hard, but it doesn’t permit defeat to be a pervasive condition of existence. Pathos is rooted in despair. Compassion is rooted in hope. The same story can transmit either feeling to readers. It can burden readers with worry or it can inspire readers to believe. It can cause dread or stir expectation. How characters experience their experience in turn determines how readers experience a novel.
What kind of spirit does your protagonist have, positive or negative? When obstacles arise does your protagonist blame others or self? Is your protagonist’s primary expectation that he or she will fail to obtain what’s desired or gain it? Is the world around your protagonist one primarily of assistance or of pain? Many protagonists are fundamentally negative, which may create a certain tension but also cannot inspire.
We may identify with characters, we may cheer for them, but even that is not the same as being inspired by them. To understand why not we only need look at people in life. Think about people you’ve known who assume the worst, resist the truth, resent, blame others, beat up themselves, focus on problems, wallow in self-doubt, always compare, agonize, cling, stew, feel bored, expect perfection, take everything personally, let things just happen, and wait for lucky breaks. Such people can nevertheless be successful. When they are, are we inspired by them?
Not so much. [Read more…]