Saturday, August 27, 2011

Exploiting Orphans

Jenny and I got into a discussion once about how so many historical novels use "helping orphans" as a shorthand technique to supposedly make a jerky hero sympathetic. I always had a mental image of rakish looking hunks lining up outside an orphanage door,  checkbooks in hand. Anyway, I don't think that works!  I think that readers sympathize with interesting character confronted with interesting conflicts.  That is, "doing nice things to poor benighted orphans" isn't necessarily going to make him sympathetic. (And why is sympathy the reaction we want anyway? I do think "reader involvement" might more important, and allows for characters who are more or less than sympathetic.)

What I think I’m discovering is that character development sort of depends on these particular circumstances (the opening situation and then the plot events) causing a change in his behavior. If your hero already supports a dozen orphans because he's just such a doggone good guy, then his taking care of this new orphan is not only effortless (he’s got the whole system set up already), but also, in a way, nothing special. He always does that. All you’ll end up doing is showing that he’s a wonderful, charitable guy—and always has been.
Consider what would happen if he has no history of supporting orphans, and this kid shows up, claiming to be the orphan of the hero's former girlfriend. And... worst possible time... he's about to marry the beautiful and moralistic daughter of his wealthy boss, and she's righteous and jealous and boss is the Old Testament type. So the arrival of this orphan kid is a catastrophe, a conflict, not just the latest in a long line of orphans Hero has helped, but a problem he doesn’t know how to solve, but has to solve anyway. In other words, dealing with this orphan makes him grow, in compassion or empathy or generosity—doesn’t just display those virtues for all to see.
And if he’s embarrassed and mad at himself for doing the right thing, If he’s not sure it’s the right thing, and if doing it gets him into trouble, all the better.
What do you think? Maybe I’m misreading the attitude of the reading public, but I think a bit of curmudgeonly spirit, when coupled with eventually good actions, really does increase the sympathy factor.


Annette said...

I think you're absolutely right. One thing I've learned in my reading of romance novels is that I don't want to be told to like a character, I want my like to grow organically out of my reading. I will automatically resist if it is forced upon me, and this 'helping orphans' thing is definitely something that I'd read as forced. And yes, for a character to move towards a behavior that causes internal conflict but is the "right" thing to do is so much more realistic anyway, and so much more interesting if the character grows. If he's already helping orphans anyway, where's the growth?

I have a different read on the term 'sympathetic' when used in this context. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I was under the impression it meant we can relate to/understand and therefore root for the character. Not the same sort of sympathy as if something terrible happened to a friend and you felt sympathy for them. is that totally off base?

Edittorrent said...

Annette, I like that distinction, and that is what they're doing-- telling us to like a character.

And I just don't know what is meant by "Sympathy"-- I'm not sure why it's what we're supposed to want above all from readers. Identification, involvement?

green_knight said...

I've heard it referred to as Save The Cat, and I resent it - showing a total jerk being nice to pets so the reader knows he's not a complete jerk. Err, no. Blofeld had a cat - just because someone is nice to the powerless (like pets, small children, or people in dire need) doesn't mean they'll be a suitable partner for anyone, or even that they have 'a softer side'.

The reader is told to disregard the evidence they see about the character's character beause the writer _decrees_ that this is A Decent Person. Err, no. If someone turns up on the heroine's porch after nightfall and refuses to leave, I don't think 'potential love interest' I think 'jerk'. Or, quite possibly, 'dangerous, GET OUT'.

If you want me to like a character, they have to be likeable. That doesn't mean they have no shortcomings, but that they need to be decent people.

Edittorrent said...

GK, yeah, someone said to me recently that something happening in her book (unrelated, I thought, to the actual plot) "is a save-the-cat moment." Oh! Now I realize what you said-- why that didn't work for me. What does saving a cat (and I love cats) have to do with the story?

I'm remembering a beloved book, the Dedicated Villain, where the hero, seeking to ingratiate himself with the heroine so he can steal her gold (not THAT's a motivation I can sympathize with!) sees her cat fall into the river in a flood. Only he thinks it's her baby (it's dark), and he jumps in, all the while thinking, gee, if I save her baby, she will be grateful and let me know where he gold is. And he grabs this unexpectedly hairy baby with claws, but what does he know-- he's never held a baby, so maybe they have claws-- and shoves it up to her, and she puts it in a towel and coos over it, but sternly tells him he's a fool to risk his life like that. And he's wondering what kind of evil mother would think that saving her own baby isn't worthy of risk to life, and then she opens the towel and it's a cat, and he realizes that indeed he just risked his life to save a cat.

And he thinks about how he should grab it and throw it back in the river.

Sigh. Now that's a hero I could love.


Sherri Shackelford said...

I can't help it. I love orphan stories. It's a sickness. Even if it's forced, and you throw in an orphan just for ambiance, I'm hooked. It's a dark secret, I know.

I do like the story about the hero/baby/cat. Excellent example.

Edittorrent said...

Sherri, I love amnesia stories. We all have our buzzes! Our "kinks" that usually aren't actually very kinky!