Contrary to Popular Opinion

fishhookIf you have a little tyke nearby you probably know the story of The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. It’s about a lonely fish with scales of many colors. He is eventually persuaded to give away his beautiful scales, one by one, to the other, duller piscine creatures and builds friendships with them in the bargain. Children are enchanted by the crayon box beauty of the little fish and the budding empathy he exhibits. Teachers and parents have praised the book for teaching the values of sharing and being proud of who you are rather than how you appear.

But look up the book on the Internet and you’ll find a grenade of negative reviews and antagonistic comparisons. The book is accused of promoting liberal social propaganda above independent work ethic, of enforced equalization on behalf of those too lazy to earn their own colorful scales. The book incites heated political discourse worthy of college seminars or street protests.

It’s unlikely Pfister had any motive other than to write a kid’s book and hopefully earn a tooth fairy’s token bounty. Even if he suspected the potential controversy his story might cause, he proceeded with his vision, because the fish’s actions fit the story. Sometimes learning to share is hard. We live on a small planet where resources are finite though needs are infinite, where justice doesn’t always equal fairness, and doing the right thing might make you popular but more, might make you feel better about fitting into the tight spaces of your own soul. So, share what you’ve got. All that said in words and pictures little kids can understand. The Rainbow Fish remains a favorite among many, repellent to others.

And what have we “big kids” learned? Murder, rape, embezzlement, burglary, kidnapping, torture, fraud, graft, blackmail, espionage – all those crimes and more propel the world of books on its publishing carousel. They’re all acceptable aspects of a character as long as that character is the antagonist. The protagonist can exhibit a rumpled suit as well. Drunken, alcoholic, cheating, lying, egocentric, gambling, irresponsible, bullying, sleazy main characters are the mainstay of the written world. Of the real world as well, which is why they all fit their roles so well. Books would be boring if distilled water coursed in the main character’s veins, and every writer knows the protagonist must have a personal flaw to overcome on the way to resolving the plot.

Still, when writing The Tree House Mother, I faced a crisis. The book is about a woman’s relationship with her emotionally absent mother and how it colors her entire life, causing her to make impetuous choices that put her and others in danger. Though a successful artist, Andie’s self-doubt grows until she becomes pregnant and worries that she’ll repeat her mother’s impoverished parenting skills. She chooses to have an abortion.

Abortions are legal in this country but they inflame the perpetual debate over whether or not a woman should ever have one. I struggled with this scene, because I struggle with the entire issue. My grandmother arrived from Europe to America more than 100 years ago as a very young teenager, apparently unaccompanied by family. She’d fled a pogrom that had killed her little brother and left her mother insane. She married only a few years later, and over the next 15 years or so had seven children, all of whom she loved. She also had two self-induced abortions using a coat hanger, either of which could have killed her. She understood little about birth control, and legal abortion wasn’t an option for anyone. I won’t say whether or not I believe in a woman’s right to choose, but my grandmother’s story weighs on my heart. None of this is in my story, only Andie’s dilemma.

It wasn’t Pfister’s story that gave me the confidence to write the controversial scene in my book, but the little fish sometimes swims in the back of my head when I wonder if a certain action will fly or end up sabotaging the story. I had to let Andie remain true to her persona, even when that meant engaging in an act that might cause readers to gasp. It’s the truth to core that lends credibility to a story, that will ultimately allow a story to bear an incident that might be contrary to popular opinion of what is acceptable behavior. Bad guy can do that, but not the good guy. Will Andie’s choice lose an otherwise sympathetic audience?

Judging by the vociferous reviews of Pfister’s kids’ book, maybe 1000 words about scale sharing, I can imagine the reviews about my book (which is not yet published.) I could have allowed Andie to get falling down drunk and suffer a miscarriage, a condition more acceptable to some as it involves chance rather than choice. It wouldn’t have worked as well. (Getting drunk also being a choice.) I might not have had her face an unplanned pregnancy – one less conflict for her to deal with. The ending wouldn’t be as meaningful. Though the mention of Andie’s abortion is a tiny part of the book, the topic of abortion in American culture is incendiary. Yet it makes the conclusion of the story plausible and poignant.

You won’t learn to ride a horse if you’re too frightened to fall; you can’t swim if you won’t put your head in the water. Writing a sweet confection of a book with no controversy at all is likely to garner ho hum interest. Being afraid to write about a contentious topic means being afraid to write. Ultimately it’s the story itself that will show its strength. The worst thing might be if people have no reaction.

The rainbow fish gave away his scales. I feel like he gave one to me.

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NaNoWriMo: Are you Coddling your Characters?

It’s October, and I’d hazard that approximately half of the NaNoWriMo population is currently plotting their novels, while the other half is snickering behind their hands over the fact that they aren’t doing anything at all to prep for their novels. There is a long-standing argument over whether or not plotting or pantsing is the way to go, and let’s face it, we all tend to think the other side of the coin is wrong.

But, we’re all in this together, and whether or not you plot now, or you work yourself into a frenzy plotting while you draft, you will likely have to ask yourself this question: Are you coddling your characters?

Excuse me while I duck and cover behind this couch. I can practically hear the screams of, “No! I torture my characters!”

Do you, really? Or do you just think you do? There is a big difference.

Inflicting temporary pain on a character is easy. Using torture for long-term infliction is easy, too. But, do you let your characters escape facing the consequences of their actions?

A lot of writers I’ve encountered forget to do this, and they lose a great opportunity to really torture their characters. It is one thing to hesitate for a moment, be it jumping out in traffic to get a kid out of harm’s way or doing something else that gets themselves or someone else hurt. It is a complete other to have the character make a choice, and then have that choice come back to bite them later. It’s a different sort of impact, when the characters reap what they sow.

It hurts more.

It cuts deeper.

So, how do you know whether or not you’re letting your characters pay the price for their actions? First, you need to track the decisions they’ve made that will bite them later. Then, you need to give the action a consequence that will really, really bother the character. Let them really experience the horrors of what they’ve done. It adds depth to the character, and an edge to your writing.

If you’re a plotter, consider a variable plot line to help you see how the consequences of actions pan out. I already wrote an article about this as a part of a prepping for NaNoWriMo series on my blog.

It is a bit more complicated than just tracking the consequences of actions, however. You need to keep an eye on how your character arcs fall, and how the decisions and actions of your characters drive your plot forward. Whether or not I write it down, I keep track of this stuff when I write. By juxtaposing plot lines and character arcs, it is possible to create round characters with a lot of depth, with plot lines that are a product of your characters and the world they live in.

Plots don’t happen to characters, after all. Your characters create the plot — even if the plot events are created by someone who isn’t present in a scene. Unless you’re working with environmental conflict points, someone out there is responsible for your plot events. Volcanoes don’t tend to erupt because of the actions of a person, which is why environmental conflict points fall outside of the scope of character-created plot points. However, global climate change can be attributed to humans, so you can include that as a character-created plot point.

The line is a little blurred. Play with it. That’s the nice thing about fiction. Present it well, and you can get away with anything.

Are you coddling your characters?

Don’t. You aren’t doing your characters justice, yourself justice as a writer, or your reader justice.

Let them face the consequences of their actions. Let them fall. Let them make mistakes. Let them learn from their mistakes. Let them fail. Let them endure, suffer, and grow stronger.

Heroes don’t need to always succeed, after all. They need to be strong enough to get back up when they fail. That’s what make them a hero. They don’t quit. They don’t give up. They may be broken and bruised, but they aren’t beaten.

And even when they are, they rise up from the ashes of their mistakes.

Let your characters face the consequences of your actions.

Your readers will thank you.