For those of you who are SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) members, I’m teaching a workshop on Saturday afternoon, February 3rd, on writing fantasy at the national conference in New York City. I’ll talk a bit and give prompts, most of which will probably come from this blog. Participants will write, and then we’ll discuss. The workshop will last 2 ½ hours, so there will be lots of time to get into the weeds. I’d love to see you there!
Onto the post! On October 18, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, I have a “beastly” question:
What are some ways to balance out making your character beastly, yet sympathetic? In particular:
The character does something literally inhuman: that leaves the other characters (and the reader) aghast, but they don’t understand why everyone’s upset, because it’s perfectly normal behavior where they come from.
… how do you get across the shock of what they’ve done, yet not lose reader sympathy?
A short back-and-forth followed.
Aster: Have you read the YA novel Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo? One of the main characters- Kaz Brekker- does some pretty horrific things yet (and this part depends on interpretations) still is a fairly likable character.
Chrisite V Powell: What about showing the inhuman culture so that the reader believes that he thinks this is normal? If it’s his POV, maybe a mini flashback about someone else who did it (maybe worse?). His reaction will also say a lot, when he’s confronted.
Melissa Mead: That’s pretty much what I’ve tried to do, but I’m not sure it’s enough- or if the inhuman culture itself will turn readers off.
I’ve never issued a trigger warning for a post before, but if you’re prone to being nauseated, you may want to skip this one–not because of anything Melissa Mead wrote but because of where I take it.
Most days, Reggie and his pal Demi have a play date in our backyard. Demi’s owner and I walk around and chat while the dogs play or ignore each other or bark at passersby. Demi often takes a poop, which Reggie sometimes eats. Ew! And double yuck! This is exceedingly inhuman behavior!
I may not be willing to smell Reggie’s breath for a year, but he’s still adorable, with that big nose, pleading eyes, tell-tale tail. My love for him is undiminished despite this disgusting propensity that, like Melissa Mead’s character, he sees nothing wrong with.
So that’s one strategy: Make your monster (demon?) appealing to your POV character. If your reader likes the narrator, he probably won’t be irreversibly turned off by the monster’s behavior.
Sympathy can be agonized sympathy. I think of the TV series House (high school and up). House, a brilliant doctor, is self-destructive and insensitive. Sometimes he acts cruelly, but he’s also saving lives, not because he loves humanity but because he hates to fail and loves puzzles. He has a single friend and could be the source of the saying, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?” I used to watch and squirm and want the best for House and keep watching. A big part of my sympathy for House is that he does save lives. So that’s another strategy: Give the reader a reason to care about the monster. Rescuing others is a time-honored reason.
Among the worst practices I can think of is cannibalism, and yet the late sci fi writer Robert Heinlein made a good intellectual case for it in his classic, Stranger in a Strange Land (high school and up). (This is cannibalism following death from an unrelated cause–people aren’t killed so they can be eaten. And the book was written decades before mad cow disease was discovered.) Another strategy: Make a thoughtful argument for the offending behavior. Readers will be fascinated.
I suspect it will also help if the demon makes clear his perspective on his act. For instance, he can invite other characters to do the same or participate. He can ask, If you don’t do this (the beastly thing), how do you do that (which shows how the behavior functions in his society)? And, likewise, he might react with horror at some human customs. For example, he might be aghast that humans eat together, because in his culture eating is intensely private. There’s another strategy: Make the reader understand the demon’s viewpoint.
One more: Reveal the monster’s feelings, which, presumably, the reader will recognize and identify with. If, when he becomes aware of his companions’ shock, he responds with confusion, dismay, even resentment, the reader is likely to relate. Even if he isn’t the POV character, we can reveal his emotions through body language, dialogue, the understanding reached by our POV character, a chapter in a tome about demons and demon society, and probably more. For example, I understood Reggie’s disgusting behavior better when I read in a newspaper that dogs don’t have the region in their brains that we have to register disgust.
Readers can have a range of responses to the demon’s act. They may be intrigued or pleased by the surprise–they didn’t see that coming!–or delighted by the author’s daring. They may recognize that the behavior is beyond the pale, but it fits and, if we’re really cooking, couldn’t be otherwise.
Worst case scenario, a few readers close the book. We can’t please everyone. On the other hand, some will enjoy the demon’s behavior but will stop reading a book if they think the writing is too cautious. That goes for gatekeepers, too. Editors and agents vary. Some may be put off, but others will be thrilled to find a writer who colors outside the lines.
Here are four prompts:
∙ Your MC is picnicking with friends. The cold baked chicken, cole slaw, potato salad are scrumptious, and the ants, who invade, think so, too. Your MC or another character–you decide–picks up an ant and eats it and asks people to send more her way. Write the scene. Make the reader at least understand and tolerate the ant-eating.
∙ Write the above picnic scene from the POV of one of the ants, or, using the first-person plural POV discussed in a recent post, from the POV of the colony. While anthropomorphizing as little as possible, get the reader to be on the side of the ants.
∙ One of your characters fights the kind of fires that destroys thousands of acres. There’s no counting the people, wildlife, property, and land he’s saved. However, in his personal life he’s a relationship arsonist who blows up all his human connections. Write his reunion with his sister, from whom he’s been estranged for many years. Make this meet-up go disastrously because of his self-sabotage. In the writing, make the reader suffer out of sympathy for him and the sister.
∙ This “Snow White” takes place in an authoritarian society. When the hunter is given the order to kill Snow White, he has no moral compunctions, because it’s right and a duty to obey the queen. Write the scene in the forest when Snow White presents an alternate ethic of compassion and individual liberty. You decide if she succeeds.
Have fun, and save what you write!