Mark Terry

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Emotionally Appropriate

August 5, 2010
Hey, did you hear the one about the 9/11 widow who walked into a bar...?

No, I didn't think so (although maybe Ann Coulter has a joke about that, who knows?)

Last week USA Today, which writes little mini-reviews about a couple of the night's TV shows, had a comment about the upcoming episode of PSYCH in which they noted the character of Sean made jokes in front of the parents of a missing child (or murdered child, I don't remember which). They noted that the show was increasingly writing emotionally inappropriate dialogue, throwing in jokes just to have a joke, even though they didn't make emotional sense.

I suppose this is a bookend to yesterday's post about inappropriate comments depending on your audience.

I think it's important that our character's respond in an emotionally appropriate way. That isn't to say that you might have a character who jokes in front of, say, a 9/11 widow or in front of parents who just lost a child. But it needs to be consistent for that character. Maybe the character is an insensitive asshole, or perhaps the character deals with stress by making inappropriate jokes. How you deal with it and explain it and justify it is important.

I think this is more likely to happen in humor books and there's a whole subcategory of crime fiction that's funny. In that respect the entire book seems to exist in a universe all its own (maybe they all do). JA Konrath's Jack Daniels' novels mix dark and bloody violence with black humor and for the most part work, although they don't work all the time and for all audiences.

I think it can be a trick to figure out how to make a character emotionally real and still get them to function. JK Rowling, when asked why Harry Potter was so angry in The Order of the Phoenix and in The Half-Blood Prince, she noted that in real life Harry would probably be a basketcase or psychotic, given that his parents had been murdered, he'd been raised by abusive relatives, faced down a serial killer, a troll, a three-headed dog, a giant serpent, a dragon, watched his best friend's sister almost die, was assaulted by a teacher (Lockhart), threatened by another adult (Lucius Malfoy), fought off merman and grindylows, saw a friend and student murdered in front of him, fought off a cult of killers, fought off a serial killer (again)...

It's amazing Harry's not institutionalized, isn't it? So him being pissed is the least of it.

I'm reading NO MERCY by John Gilstrap (which totally rocks, by the way) and the main character, Jonathan Grave, is a former special forces guy who now acts as a kidnap retrieval expert. And he notes that he doesn't dream, which is odd given how many people he's killed and how many tight situations he's been in. His friend, Dom, who is a priest, suggests that it's because his life is so scary that sleep is where he flees to, while most people flee their nightmares to get to real life. I'm not sure the psychology makes complete sense, but I thought it was interesting and made for great character building. And it's completely, emotionally appropriate.



Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

In a typical murder mystery from the Golden Age the victim is little more than a prop, to provide a puzzle for the detective, and characters rarely display an appropriate emotional reaction to a killing, or at least the book will gloss over it and not concentrate on it. I'm not sure this is completely acceptable in a modern mystery, even one patterned on older puzzle oriented mysteries, however even today the emotional reactions to a murder are going to be played down , maybe to an unrealistic extent, if only because it isn't the purpose of a mystery novel to explore such emotional reactions. It does create a problem, deciding whee to draw the line though, how much reaction gets in the way of the mystery and how little is not realistic enough at all.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well, yeah, in that most amateurs faced with a murder will not view solving the crime as something they intend to do or have the ability (or inclination) to do. And although I've seen a lot of people TALK about revenge, generally speaking it seems like more talk than actual activity (Thank God). And since I'm writing a series about a guy who probably should retire from saving the world or who the gov't agency he works for would probably not put up with, I do understand that fiction, especially genre fiction, allows us a lot of leeway in manipulating the world to our own ends (which is maybe why we do it), but sometimes you get weirdly inappropriate or affectless responses in fiction.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Travis Erwin said...

A word of warning, I mentioned you in my blog post today.

1:01 PM  
Anonymous Jo W. said...

I think that being able to have jokes in your writing is important, but I think that it is important to put them in at the right times. What that will be for your audience is specific to them. One character who makes jokes may be funny, another may do it because he is nervous.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I have used gallows humor in several of my books, but there's definitely a whole reason for them. In chapter two (I think) of The Roofer, the character mentions her father running over a man after her dad hijacked a bus, and how, told the right way, it's funny. This is actually a true story. My dad hijacked a bus, threw off all the people, then drove the bus over a man, breaking both legs, before finally being arrested and tossed in the slammer. But my dad tells it "funny." And I accept that he tells it funny because that's just who he is. It's character appropriate. It's real. Now if I hit a friggin' squirrel, I cry. Let alone a PERSON? I shudder over little animals who are road kill. And it's appropriate to my character.

I think the writer's job is discerning that. It's not for the "easy laugh." It has to be real.

8:07 AM  

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