Thursday, April 19, 2012

She Gave In? I'd've Punched Him! Or, Believable Emotions in Fiction

A month or so ago, I posted about some ways to handle implausible story elements so that readers might find them believable. Some of the good discussion that followed kept my thoughts on this issue going. Specifically, my thoughts turned from primarily plot elements more to emotional elements. The emotional arc of the main character is so important, because whether or not readers resonate with it has everything to do with how involved they can become in the story. Yet I've read many stories in which I find myself rooting for the MC to react or respond differently than she has chosen (or than the author has written her).

I've discovered that, in general, I am more willing to follow unbelievable (to me) emotions than events. Of course, sometimes emotions and events overlap a great deal. For example, I'll never forget the episode of Little House on the Prairie in which Mary Ingalls does not take her baby with her when she and her friend (whose name I do forget) evacuate children from a fire, instead leaving it to her friend to escape with her baby. I am so not the type to get up and scream at the TV set, but I'm pretty sure that time I did. As a young mother myself, I knew with every fiber of my being that Mary would have and should have simply taken her baby from the other woman's arms and then rounded up the rest of the kids. The only reason she didn't was because the plot called for the baby and the other woman to perish in the fire. The implausible action, supposedly fueled by the off-kilter emotion, spoiled the episode for me.

But plenty of times, I've read books in which I part company with the MC due strictly to her emotion in a certain scene: I buy what's happening, but I would not respond/react the same way at all. I realize that has seldom been a deal-breaker for me in the same way that implausible actions can be. My response to unbelievable emotion tends to fall into one of these categories:
  • I "should" feel more like the MC does instead of the way I actually do feel. Now isn't that interesting? And there may well be some truth to this, especially when the MC is taking the high road and I'd much prefer to tell somebody where to get off.  In other words, when the MC is less angry than I.
  • Precisely because of the above, I don't give up on the story because it has aroused so much emotion. Hey, I'm even more worked up than the MC is!
  • I've parted company with the MC only in that scene, not for the whole book, so I'm still invested.
  • I figure the MC and I are different people, and I signed on to read this book so that I may walk in her experience for a time. If the MC comes alive, which she should, why would I agree with her every step of the way?
What do you think? Do you struggle more with implausibilities in the action plot than the emotional plot, or vice-versa? Have you figured out why? Has any of it come as a surprise to you?


Barbara Watson said...

Interesting topic, Marcia. In a blog I wrote about Gary D. Schmidt's OKAY FOR NOW, a commentor mentioned the father's change of heart at the end as implausible but how it didn't bother her because the rest of the book was so perfect. And to tell you the truth, the action of the dad's change (even if it was implausible) didn't affect me because I was so tied to the emotion of MC. So I'm going to say I stuggle more with emotional implausibilities than action based ones.

Vijaya said...

Well, I tend to be plot driven, so I have to make sure that my characters would do as I want them to, which leads to cycles of revisions :)

The best part is when I let the character lead and gain insights into motivation that I didn't have before.

Of course, when I read books or watch movies, I tend be aware of plot points (I have spoiled many a movie for my husband by predicting what will happen) and I'm always curious how they are going to pull it off.

By the way, I remember that episode you wrote about ... and I knew the mother and baby had to die, so I wasn't aware that it didn't fit with Mary's character to leave the burning building.

I need me some good Little House ...

Jaye Robin Brown said...

Hmmm, interesting question. I think I notice both, but I guess plot is a bit harder to take if it leaves me saying "Yeah. Right."

Mirka Breen said...

I find characters that surprise by behaving in a way that ‘doesn’t fit’ to be exciting, but this has to be a surprise that still feels organic. It is their moment to shine, or show us something we (and they) didn’t realize could happen. It should be experienced as revelation, not something convenient to the plot.
I remember in the movie Rear Window when Grace Kelly’s character, the elegant socialite, ups and climbs the fire escape and enters a dangerous stranger’s apartment in order to get evidence against him. Jimmy Stuart’s character is watching, stunned, and so are we. She is flushed with excitement at her own initiative, and it works on every level.
So like you said, it’s either very wrong, or it’s right.

Vijaya said...

Mirka, you hit the nail on the surprise that is organic. I think that's how endings should be. Surprising but also inevitable. Not an easy feat!

Marcia, I'm always worried your new robot checker will think I'm a robot because I find it difficult to decipher the letters ...

inluvwithwords said...

Interesting topic, Marcia. My first response was to say that I struggle with implausible action more than implausible emotion. But when I think about the YA book I just finished I remember being put off by many of the instances that brought the MC to tears. Few of the situations seemed like anything to cry over and it didn't really fit with the characters personality. But although each time it happened, it pulled me out of the story enough to say "Really, she's crying over that? That seems forced," it didn't keep me from loving the story as a whole.

Marcia said...

Barbara -- Yes, I found that change of heart, plus a few other things at the end, implausible as well. So, both emotional and event things. And I fully agree that the book is so overall wonderful that they didn't matter to me beyond the mere noticing. In fact, they almost made me like the book/author more. "Oh, how endearing; this perfect book has flaws! :)

Vijaya -- You're plot driven? Oh, I'm so intrigued; I would have guessed character-driven. One thing my dad and I had in common was predicting plot points. Yes, then the challenge becomes how will they do it, instead of what will they do. At the time that LH episode aired, I kept running into other moms who'd say, "Did you SEE that LH episode? Did you BELIEVE Mary didn't take her baby..."

Jaye -- I'm seeing how a point that I disbelieve is often a combination of both, but yes, it's primarily an EVENT I don't believe that pulls me out of a story. If my emotions don't match the MC's, I'm more likely to just say, "Okay, that's her, not me."

Mirka -- I really agree about revelation. There has to be something inevitable about plot surprises. That, "Oh, of course" thing.

Vijaya -- I don't like how the letters are distorted either, and do we really need to type TWO words? I notice I'm getting better at it, though. :D Maybe I'll try taking the word veri off again and see what happens. But last time I tried, my email inbox was flooded with spam posts, even though they didn't get posted here! Ugh.

Ruth -- Yes, I think that whether we struggle with implausible action or emotions more, we'll always find examples where we're struggling with the other one. And it's always interesting to read stories in which such things as forced emotions DON'T affect our enjoyment of the story overall, and then other books that DO.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

It depends on the situation. If something is not ringing true and I can't justify it in any way, whether it be related to the emotional plot or the action, I can get hung up and at times pulled out of the world or flow of the novel.

Faith E. Hough said...

Interesting post... Honestly, implausibilities bother me wherever they happen. I just read a book that was nominated for a major award this year, by an author I admire--and I had to put it down a few chapters in because of a reaction/plot point (both at once is the worst) which seemed so contrived that it actually made me really annoyed. I felt I couldn't trust the author any longer.
If you're interested, I tagged you on my blog for the Lucky Seven game--you don't have to play if you don't want to, but I just wanted to share your blog because I enjoy reading it so much!

cleemckenzie said...

I'm watching Breaking Bad on Netflix right now and I'm blown away by how the writers weave the character reactions and plot so seamlessly. When a character does something that might be implausible in any other situation, it's perfectly plausible inside the story. I find myself sighing a lot at those characters' terrible decisions, but I understand why they're making them.

Great topic, Marcia. And thanks for weighing in on my cover choice. I appreciated that.

Sara Hill said...

A very interesting topic. I think I'm more attuned to improbable plots, although that's ironic because I have such trouble with my own. I recognize a good one, but seeing isn't the same as doing, is it?

Dawn Malone said...

I'm always more attuned to the character-driven stories, and an MC's emotions and motivations have to be believable for me to stay with the story.
Great post, Marcia!

Marcia said...

Cynthia -- Yes, it certainly happens with either one. When it does, it can kind of make the novel fall apart into its parts before your eyes, you know?

Faith -- Thanks so much for the tag! You've hit on a big point with trust. It's a huge element in our ability to sink down into the author's story.

Lee -- I love stories like that -- where we can bemoan a character's choice (we're involved!) yet completely understand why they'd do this.

Sara -- You're so right; seeing isn't the same as doing. But I figure we have to see before we can do, so we're very much on the right track. :)

Dawn -- Right; emotions AND motivations. Not just how they feel now that they've done something, but what compelled them to do it in the first place.

Susan Fields said...

I do find it irritating when I don't buy a character's emotions or how they react to a certain situation. One example I find coming up over and over again is when the character keeps whatever is going on secret rather than confiding in another character, when you know it would work out so much better for them if they'd just get some help. That's made me want to throw a few books against the wall. :)

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I put a book down if an emotion or action point seems unbelievable. If the book's really good otherwise and if what happens next compensates for that moment, then I'll keep reading.

Marcia said...

Susan -- That's so true -- basing the plot on miscommunication or lack of communication, when they could easily communicate, is lame. The writer really has to motivate the lack of communication and make it believable.

Medeia -- Yes, some books can keep you reading in that situation and some can't. It depends on how much the whole book depends on that point (ugly sentence much?).