Sunday, September 09, 2007

It's not you, it's me...most of the time

Having just mentioned the Big Misunderstanding in novels, I thought I'd talk about this a bit more.

What do I mean by the Big Misunderstanding? That's when the conflict between two characters is based on, well, a misunderstanding. One thinks one thing, the other another, one is right, one is wrong, or the truth is somewhere in the middle. This conflict keeps the characters at odds during the story.

I have heard/read readers complain about this many times. They don't like it, and if only the characters had had a single, simple discussion like mature adults, the issue would have been resolved. Of course, they also know that would have been the end of the conflict and the end of the story, but they were frustrated nonetheless.

To be honest, my first reaction when I see such complaints is to wonder if those readers have never, ever been in a situation where there was a misunderstanding that yes, could have been resolved with a single, simple conversation, yet that conversation never took place -- and how fortunate they are if that is so. Because I can think of several plausible explanations for not having such a conversation.

You believe you are right and the other person should apologize and speak first. If you speak first, it will be letting the person at fault think they were right, or that they've "gotten away" with something.

You realize you're wrong, but don't want to admit it, either because of pride, the belief the other person will gloat, or that to do so will make you seem vulnerable, weak or stupid.

You believe you're right and the other person is wrong, but don't want to try to convince the other person of their error because they will make your life even more miserable, even though you're right. Also, they may outrank you or have more credentials, so even if you're right, other people may not believe it.

You're really not sure who's right and who's wrong and don't want to find out, in case it's you who's wrong.

You don't want to risk inflaming the situation even more. The situation may not be good, but you don't want to make it worse.

You have no opportunity for such a conversation. There is no time, no privacy or you are far apart geographically.

Perhaps some of these reasons seem immature. No doubt they are.

My chronological age might suggest I should possess a certain wisdom or detachment, but when it comes to emotions? There are some issues on which I will likely never be older than ten and I doubt I'll ever be able to consider them with emotional maturity. I don't think I'm unique in that. I think most readers can relate to that, because they have deep emotional issues, too, based on what's happened in their lives, and will realize they may not always react maturely, either.

However, if the only reason presented for avoiding such a conversation seems to be simply stubbornness, annoyance, frustration, jealousy or selfishness, your characters will likely come across as childish and immature, rather than a character with sympathetic emotional issues based on their past. That is not good. That is what makes readers think they should have been able to resolve their conflict with a simple, single conversation.

The real fault here is what I call shallow characterization. The writer hasn't gone deep enough into the characters and given them solid, understandable, believable reasons for avoiding that clarifying conversation. If the writer does that, even a disagreement over the flavor of an ice cream cone can seem significant.

In other words, it's not the reader who's at fault. It's the writer.

But, cries the writer, I did think of that. I did go that deep.

Then somehow, the writer didn't manage to convey that knowledge and understanding and deeper motive to the reader.

To speak in the writer's defense, though, there are times when that information is there. In fact, there are times when the writer can point to a specific sentence or paragraph on a specific page that clearly spells out why the character(s) will not have that conversation, and an understandable, believable explanation it is, too.

In that case, the fault does lie with the reader. Maybe it was in the sort of scene they tend to skip (a love scene or a scene that's got a lot of description) -- and don't get me started on how frustrating it is for a writer to hear a reader declare, "Oh, I always skip X sort of scenes!"

Maybe they were jumping up to get off the train and lost their place and missed it. Maybe (and I fear this happens with some reviewers) they were reading too quickly, because they wanted/needed to finish ASAP. They rush right over the bit the author labored on for days trying to convey the character's deep emotional issues.

I hate to think that to avoid those disgruntled readers writers need to convey such information several times. I don't want to hammer the reader over the head, as if I think they're too dense to get it the first time. I honestly think once, twice at the most, should be enough, or your characters will wind up sounding like self-involved sad sacks.

So it often seems an author has a choice: repeat the reasons the misunderstanding can't be solved with one simple conversation and risk alienating your readers who do get it the first time and think you're beating them over the head with that information, or risk alienating readers who might miss the one explanation your characters won't sit down and discuss the situation.

It can be a tough call.


Leah Braemel said...

I just read a book by a new author (to me anyway) and while the writing was good, I started muttering under my breath half-way through because it all could have been solved if the heroine had just said 'Hey, hunk! I've got something to tell you.' Which of course she wouldn't, instead she just kept skulking around the castle trying to solve things herself. But maybe I'm like you, and nearly 30 years of marriage has taught me that such games don't work, just make things worse.

Margaret Moore said...

I can think of a few reasons a heroine wouldn't confide in the hero, trust issues especially, but in that case, you have to show the reader why she won't trust the hero -- and it gets pretty tricky if you portray the hero as a trustworthy guy. In other words, it can be a problem if you've set the hero up as Mr. Good Guy, and she won't confide in him. Either you then have to give her really solid motives for not trusting ANY man, or else you have to present reasons she can't trust THIS man, despite how trustworthy he appears to others.

Nobody ever said writing was easy...except the people who don't actually try to do it. :-)

Kimber said...

One of the benefits of writing about jaded, cynical business people (like myself) is that words don't mean squat to them.

So they could have a face-to-face conversation about the big misunderstanding and if there isn't enough evidence to sway their stance... still not have a resolution.