Emotional consequences in fiction

Something I see fairly often in stories:

Some huge life-changing event has happened—whether to the protagonist, to someone close to them, or to the world.

And that event drives the plot, but the protagonist (and other affected characters) don't seem to be particularly emotionally affected by it.

For example: Say the author wants to write a story about a character receiving a mysterious gift. So the protagonist's parents die in a car crash, and the protagonist inherits (say) a mysterious box.

And the story is all about the character being intrigued by the box and trying to figure out how to open it, and then how to use the alien artifact that's inside. And the author is so focused on telling the story they want to tell that they completely forget that when a real person's parents die in a car crash, the person is usually emotionally devastated.

So: by all means, have big life-changing things happen to your characters. But make sure that you think about, and portray plausibly, the emotional consequences.

And if you don't want your protagonist to be grief-stricken throughout the story, then don't kill their parents at the start. There are plenty of other ways to receive a mysterious inheritance.

Note: In case this isn't clear, my point here is not about the deaths of a character's parents; that's just a made-up example. More often the event in question is the death of a child, or an alien invasion, or a pandemic, or various other significant events.

5 Responses to “Emotional consequences in fiction”

  1. textjunkie

    That’s one of the things that “Slacktivist” has been railing about in the Left Behind dissections he’s been doing for years–in those stories, 1/3 of the world’s population just disappeared in the rapture, but somehow, business and airfare and government just continues as though nothing happened… No one ever stops to cry, after the opening few pages, even though the time covered by Book 1 is maybe only a few weeks.

  2. Shmuel

    Oddly enough, I’m reading the first Left Behind book right now. I’m about a third of the way through, on page 170, and it’s been pretty much dominated by the major characters grieving so far. Possibly this applies down the line, but for now I’d have to say that particular criticism is way off the mark.

  3. Shmuel

    Just finished… and all I can say is that the description textjunkie offers doesn’t resemble the book I read at all.

  4. Jed

    tj: Oh, yeah—I had forgotten about those Slacktivist writeups, but now that you mention it, those descriptions of the Left Behind books were probably one of the things that was in the back of my mind when I wrote this entry.

    Shmuel: That’s fascinating—I haven’t read the books, but Slacktivist comments on the lack of grieving over and over again. For example, from a recent entry describing the beginning of book 2:

    I’m having a hard time fitting those dark days of “grief-stricken” paralysis into the existing timeline for our story. Rayford’s daily activities since the Event are almost fully accounted for. He hasn’t missed a single day of work. He hasn’t even skipped a meal. Nor has anyone else that we’ve seen.

    Here, for the first time, we learn that Rayford has “seen many men weep.” That’s a start, but all the children of the world have stolen. The world ought, then, to be more full of weeping than we can understand. But we’ve been looking at this post-Event world for nearly 500 pages now and it remains cruelly composed, dry-eyed and unmoved.

    So now I’m confused, ’cause your description and Slacktivist’s do seem very much at odds. But on further skimming of some of Slacktivist’s earlier entries (and searching within various pages for the word “child”), I think Slacktivist is saying that all the characters give lip service to being distraught, but that nobody is nearly as upset as real people would be if their children—and all children on Earth—suddenly vanished. And that most of the characters seem to get over it and are back to going about their ordinary lives within a day or two.

    But again, I haven’t read the books, so I have no idea.

  5. Shmuel

    Rayford’s daily activities since the Event are almost fully accounted for. He hasn’t missed a single day of work. He hasn’t even skipped a meal.

    Simply untrue. Rayford is basically a basket case until his 20-year-old daughter — the one other member of his immediate family left behind — rejoins him. He can’t eat; he has trouble sleeping; he’s paranoid about tying up the phone line for one second, in case that’s the second his daughter calls; and he doesn’t work for days, though admittedly he couldn’t if he wanted to: he’s a commercial pilot and the airports are mostly shut down. When he does go back to flying, his daughter accompanies him on every single flight, because each of them is afraid to leave the other.

    A more valid criticism might be that while there’s plenty of grief to go around in the book, it all comes across as rather detached from the reader. This much is true, but it goes for pretty much every bit of characterization in the book. It’s a novel of ideas, and ought to be treated as such; the foils used by Orwell and Rand aren’t much better.

    (My take is that I don’t happen to buy any of the authors’ premises, but that — quite a few quibbles over details aside — they’re successful at what they set out to do, which is to describe how the Rapture might broadly play out if it were to happen in our time.)


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