Heaven Weeps

Heaven weeps

(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.

41 Comments

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41 responses to “Heaven Weeps

  1. paladin3001

    c4c

  2. I think, and I could be wrong, but one danger of using tragedy too heavily is that the reader gets numb (see GRRM). And it seems easy to slide into bathos, or grey goo. There’s got to be something on the other side for SOMEONE, be it the protagonist, or his survivors.

    In one of the Song of the Lioness books by Tamora Pierce [Spoiler Alert!], the MC’s brother dies. He’s made himself into something that was going to come to a bad end one way or another, but even so the MC and the reader mourn and have to deal with the blow just as things are falling down around them (literally). The MC carries on, but she needs time to regroup and recover. The reader closes the covers and nods, because the author has wrapped enough loose ends to end the main series, but left enough world for the possibility of future adventures.

    • Draven

      see, I’ve read some of GRRM’s older stuff, and watches maybe a half dozen eps of GoT… but at this point i will never find out how good SoIaF may be (tho the main story effectively not advancing for six books would unnerve me) because GRRM has specifically taken time out of his schedule to insult people i consider friends.

      • Luke

        The first book was a breath of fresh air for a genre that he become stale through sheer repetition of storylines. (Even if it was Wars of the Roses fanfic.)
        The second book didn’t live up to the first.
        The third surpassed it.
        The ones since haven’t been very good.
        And the most recent one was just downright bad. I really can’t think of a single reason to waste you time reading it. (Unless you like torture porn, in which case I’d advise spending that time on a therapist instead.)

        Besides, GRRM has, as you’ve noted, become comfortable with being an ass.

        • Luke

          Shorter version: timeless prose, it ain’t.

          Also, don’t watch the series. The things that were only implied were full enough of squick. HBO lovingly giving them full representation is enough to make you want a bath with a solute much stronger than water. Possibly with a steel brush.

          • I think the only parts I really enjoyed in the tv series, before I stopped watching, were the scenes of Arya learning ‘dancing’, and more or less any scene with Tyrion (the scene with ‘Tripod’ was particularly laugh-inducing.) Mind, the acting is pretty darned good overall, but I stopped watching pretty much at the same point I stopped reading – book 3.

  3. 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.

    This is why I don’t like reading tragedies, and see little value in them. Yes, they can be effective tear jerkers, but so what? I have history books and the news for that.

    • Actual documentaries and accounts of disasters… are likely at least part of why the horror genre does nothing for me. “But.. $MONSTERS!” “…are pretty tame when compared against what happened in Bhopal.”

  4. 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.)

    This is the thing. Traditional publishing does not see this as microscopic parts of the population. They are so deep within their little putrid bubbles that they do not realize they are the microcosm. They do not know the market. They haven’t for a long time. According to them, Alfred Hitchcock wouldn’t have liked Smokey and the Bandit, yet he did.

    Likewise they don’t get that most not only do most don’t care when a reporter gets “body slammed,” but go “hit him again.” I had a life-long Democrat say to me that the reporter probably deserved it. When you have Democrats saying that about a Republican candidate, reporters have a serious image problem. Add to this that most outside the bubble know what a body slam is, and envisioned the reporter lifted up and slammed down back first, and took the report as face value, and it’s obvious that there’s not a lot of love for the media beyond the bubbles. But they don’t that, because they’ve never been outside the bubbles they’ve fouled and never bothered to clean out.

    This is the same bunch who think they know what people want to read. Maybe they do for those in the bubble, but there’s a larger market beyond the sickly green film that they simply don’t have a clue about.

    • Yep, Montana was enough “Punch him again, Greg!” that Gianforte’s campaign got $100k in donations over the next 12 hours and one of the biggest landslide wins in our history. — He’s a friend of a friend who speaks very highly of him, another reason why I’m inclined to believe G’s version (reporter trespassed on a private meeting in a private space, got right in G’s face, got his his hand pushed away, then grabbed G’s wrist and pulled them both to the floor, where the consequent flailing for balance got interpreted as “punching”).

      Turns out said reporter is a former Democratic Party operative, who had failed to disclose this per the Guardian’s code of ethics (such as that is, given their history). And the “witness” (Fox reporter) changed her story later… no body-slam, and somehow there’s no video either?? It’s pretty clear the whole thing was a setup… that didn’t go quite as planned. (The message is clear: always have your own camera present and running.)

      Only thing Gianforte did wrong was to apologize afterward. Under Montana law, we have no duty to retreat.

      • They’re probably trying to do more screeching at the moment to cover up for a fairly well entrenched and connected Democrat being arrested for child pornography (yet another one!) Which is why I’ve been ignoring the ‘serious’ news.

        (Also, GO DUTERTE!)

        • From what I’ve heard and inferred, it’s independent of that other Dem mess… rather, the left is trying to make Montana into the next Minnesota, where a very conservative population got snookered by the leftist New Party and turned into D.C. Lite (I found some interesting documentation on that a few years back; the New Party was where Obama got his real start), and now the urban demographics are too concentrated and shifted too far for MN to ever return to its roots. The same thing has been going on in Nevada (with more success because of a much higher uneducated-immigrant demographic). These “small” states are seen as vulnerable and are hoped ignorant enough to take over, or at least use to wrest back control of Congress, one representative at a time — after all given how lockstep the Dems usually vote, you only need 51%. HUGE influx of external money went into trying to get a leftist puppet elected in Montana, but the liberal enclaves don’t yet have a majority vote here. (Someone, please, nuke Berkeley North, er, I mean Missoula, before it’s too late.)

    • Why, it’s the whole world to them. Bubble universe, in a sense.

    • Terry Sanders

      Or had a pretty fair idea what happened. NOBODY real would *narrate* during a fight. Only comic books and radio plays have that–and comics put it in thought balloons.

      “Quick, Cato, hurry across to the bedroom, open the door, and see if anyone is in there!”

  5. I think that one of the difficulties that people have with writing tragedy is that they try to make it too neat–“Joe cried because Linda was dead”. Real tragedy doesn’t hit people in neat, rational ways. It’s chaotic and keeps hitting you in ways that you don’t expect.

    One of my favorite examples is the beginning of Tim Power’s “Last Call”. The main character has lost his wife to a sudden heart attack one morning, and he takes her coffee cup and puts it in the over, set on low, because he can’t bear the thought of her coffee just growing cold without her. It’s a completely irrational response, but it’s a very human one, and it’s a very moving scene.

    • Terry Sanders

      C. S. Lewis’ semi-autobigraphical A GRIEF OBSERVED starts with his character writing about how he never imagined that grief would feel so much like fear. Same hollow in the stomach, same odd detachment, etc.

      • Mary

        Also like surprise.

        • Terry Sanders

          Yep. Years before the events that inspired the book, he preached a sermon at the College about the phenomenon. It was collected under the title “Transposition.”

          He started with a quote from Samuel Pepys, in which beautiful music had so overwhelmed him that he felt “quite sick.” Then Lewis discussed how odd it was that esthetic bliss, romantic love, severe anxiety, and seasickness had the same physical symptoms.

          He compared it to transposing a symphony for piano. The piano can only do so much, and you have to simplify like blazes. And yet it works–the effects are somehow re-elaborated in your mind.

          As I recall, he suggested it as an analogy for glossolalia.

  6. Weeping? Raining? Hmmph. Someone up there needs to pump out their septic tank. Or maybe they’re just not housebroken. 😉

    Bingo on why I stopped watching the TV GRRM — I became weary of the shock value. A little shock seasons; all shock all the time becomes boring, or overwhelms, sort of like Vesuvius.

  7. The effective use of tragedy means it hits you when you aren’t expecting it – but you can see where it was coming from if you think back.

    I don’t do a lot of it, but real people can’t live life (at least not an interesting life) without running into some, so, if you write realistic fiction, some occasions will come up. I try not to hide from what comes.

    But never mention the emotions. ‘Joe cried because Linda died’ means the reader doesn’t have to. But if instead you write about Joe’s hand holding Linda’s when hers goes still, your reader will experience it.

    Unless you’re writing cozy mysteries.

    • I like to think that I am realistic in my own books – which cover a number of different characters over a period of 75 years, so I have had a number of characters die; a couple of them from natural causes, a few more from disease, and handful of them in rather more dramatic and sudden fashion. I hope that I have not been as free-handed in dealing out death to characters as GRRM … some of them were absolutely central and likable characters. But I couldn’t spare them; most times, it was pre-planned that way, and a lot of plot hung on their survivors coping and carrying on.

  8. Uncle Lar

    Once upon a time reporting was at least as an ideal a most noble profession. Reporters were the ultimate example of speaking truth to power.
    These days not so much. Twisting the truth to better fit your narrative or publishing lies because digging out the truth is too much bother seems to be the norm now.
    I believe that Woodward, Bernstein, and that whole Watergate scandal however important in an of itself has had a decisively harmful effect on the current crop of journalists and reporters. They no longer wish to document the truth, but rather to use reporting to mold public opinion into the beliefs they think right and proper. And with personal experience gained from a liberal arts education and no real world experience their right and proper has no basis in reality.

    • “They no longer wish to document the truth, but rather to use reporting to mold public opinion into the beliefs they think right and proper.”

      Not so much that as they want to be Woodward and Bernstein. They want to be the guys who bring The Man down.
      Which is admirable, up until the point where if you can’t find The Man, you pick out someone who bears a halfway-decent resemblance to him and decide to bring him down.

      • snelson134

        Or you don’t admit the reality, which is that your party and philosophy have been “The Man” for 40 years or more. Because if you do, you’ll have to bring yourselves down and admit just how badly you’ve screwed up.

    • snelson134

      Mr. Kipling (a reporter) would beg to differ: 😎

      “She patronized extensively a man, Ulysses Gunne,
      Whose mode of earning money was a low and shameful one.
      He wrote for certain papers, which, as everybody knows,
      Is worse than serving in a shop or scaring off the crows.”

      https://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/kipling/delilah.html

  9. Barbara Thompson

    As a reader to the writers–if a character death is necessary to the story, make it matter! I read a fantasy trilogy some years ago now; well written, characters very real, etc etc, etc. The author started a second trilogy in which she killed off nearly every single major character from the previous trilogy in the first three pages. And no, I’m not exaggerating. One major character got his death outlined in two sentences. I did not read the second trilogy–why should I invest in characters that matter so little to the author? .

    • Aliens 3, you have a call on the white courtesy phone….

      • I refused to watch that one. I heard about the beginning in time to save myself.

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          You didn’t miss anything good.

          There was IMO so much to dislike about that movie that the death of the other survivors from Aliens 2 seems minor. 😦

    • snelson134

      GRRM, I’m looking at you.

    • You can dispatch characters quickly if you do so in an important manner. I’m thinking of Melanie Rawn here, who had a plague come through her book that wasn’t even described directly, but in an interlude between sections. Characters were blithely killed off en masse, and yet, their individual deaths still had resonance several books on, because of the effects of those deaths on the living. (Widows and widowers don’t always “recover” in short order.)