(or it is raining. It’s a matter of perspective and characterization, if you think about it)
We’re in a world where real tragedy, from Muslim extremists who find murdering little girls something to celebrate, to the little personal tragedies – not making ‘phone call to your mother until that tomorrow – which was too late, that can cut us to the quick. For many of us, we read to escape this, not to have it dragged up again.
Yet it is a very real part of great writing.
One of the things I am weakest at, and yet both admire and hate in the work of other writers who do it so much better than me, is the effective use of tragedy. It’s, probably, of the literary forms, slightly easier than comedy. That’s not hard to understand: we at least have some common ‘buttons’ across at least most of western civilization that make us want to weep, or at least get dust in our eyes. That’s not true of humor, where one man’s joke can easily be another man’s chosen political candidate.
Of course, as has frequently been observed, nothing is simple, and then you die… which is almost inevitably tragic from at least one perspective. Tragedy too can be a question of perspective, but, for the writer anyway, that a controllable perspective. The character suffering, or dying, is a character we have built. Everyone but rare psychopaths find suffering or dying pretty unpleasant if they identify and/or care about the character. (Yes I know. Poor psychopaths, sadists, masochists etc. so left out. Especially the intersectional ones. Look, feel free to start a hashtag campaign on twitter for them: we’re trying to sell books, preferably a lot of them, and that means that we worry about large enough chunks of the demographic to make a living selling to. Outside of Political Correctness, there is little point in endless appeasement of microscopic parts of the population, if you want to make a living selling books. Don’t worry, traditional publishing will cater for them.)
As I said, heaven weeps, or it is raining – depending on perspective of the reader about ‘Heaven’ (if you the author have managed to apply anthropomorphism to the sky and clouds, well, you’re following in ancient traditions. If you’ve carried the reader along, maybe a theological career is for you after all.) Whether the reader cares will depend on character that you, the author have created for ‘heaven’.
Of course, this is where it starts to get complicated. Obviously, not all readers are the same, and a substantial part of getting readers to care is some degree of being able to identify with the character and thus their distress. I suspect the slew of traditional authors contracted by angry, tearful publishers to write horrifying, tragic distrumpias (it’s the new big thing with traditional publishing. I suspect it will be for at least the next few years. It has a ready market with 95% of NY publishers. I wonder how it’s going to do outside that bubble.) may come to some startling discoveries. I’m sure it will be the readers’ fault, the insensitive boors, because the features that make a tragic tearjerker in NY publishing and their social and political circles… mean nothing to ¾ of the readers. In fact it may well be like the politician who gave the Guardian reporter a ‘body-slam’ (AKA a good shove). The media saw it (their perspective) as making the fellow an un-electable villain. Plainly – as he got comfortably elected, this was not the case from the perspective of many people.
Having had Guardian writer Damian Walter attempt to damage my career by attacking my book without actually reading more the first paragraph of CHANGELING’S ISLAND… I know who I would probably have voted for. A bit of defenestration, with a nice picket fence to land his derriere on and it would have been even more vote-grabbing, if hard on the fence. #NotAllFences!
That of course is an example how tragedy is a matter perspective… when the character is a stereotype of whom we see an ‘upper’ layer. It’s a lot harder – no matter what your perspective is, when the writer tackles the characterization well, from the basics up. Because yes, most of us are, at that level, remarkably alike. It is far easier to get a reader to identify with and care about a character after showing him or her, for example, trying to comfort a crying baby – especially if that is at 2 AM and the adult has no idea what is wrong, and is full of that odd mixture of helpless despair and utter exhaustion that every parent dealing with this goes through. You’ve done all the obvious (diapers, feed, attempt to wind, cuddle, sing, check temperature, panic a little, etc.). Pretty much every decent parent has been there. If I’ve seen these aspects of character, showing their human-ness, I care at least a little, even if they are the villain, or a Guardian reporter.
If all the reader has seen of them is at a busy day villaining (or being a hero, depending on perspective) at least to some, if not all of your audience, that tragedy you agonized over writing, is either ho-hum or a comedic interlude.
Another aspect of tragedy within the novel – besides eliciting the sympathy of reader, or providing motive or shock value a la GRRM (I disapprove. It’s like adding cocaine to your bottled soda recipe to sell it. It’ll work. But by next month you need add a little more. And the month after, more.) is one that I think is often missed. It is that of contrast. Now, I’m a mediocre to poor tragedarian, as I tend to be too involved and fond of my characters to be as nasty as I probably should be. I’m also pretty poor at this style of drama, as I tend to blunder into comedic interludes. I stand in awe of authors who can hold me while it is nothing but drama, the whole way. I fail at that. But tragicomedy (both in the ‘happy ending’ and the Satyr play sense) is my natural métier. This is where ‘contrast’ really comes into play.
Take a bottle of white paint, and a bottle of black. Mix them equally and your picture is gray. Do various proportions and you can achieve a wonderfully complex picture. If you want elements to stand out… you put extremes against each other. A piece of music with the same dynamics, same pace… makes a good lullaby, which is great if you’re selling your books as soporifics. Otherwise – a tragicomedy is an orchestration, a balancing act of pathos and humor, of fast and slow pace (slow – used judiciously makes the fast seem a lot faster).
It does require sometimes killing beloved characters (I have never quite forgiven Diana Wynne Jones for the death of Olob – even if it was a key feature of that book. She did it well in the Dalemark Quartet. Worth learning from.) which is never easy.
However – the good aspect of tragicomedic writing, for me anyway, is that one can – at least in part, resolve the tragedy, or ease it. That’s not always true in real life.
I guess that might explain why Ilike to write it and read it.