Tuesday, January 08, 2019
Storyteller’s Rulebook: It’s Okay to Put Some Distance Between the Reader and the Character
It’s a trickier way to write, but sometime you want to create some distance between your hero and your audience. I talked in this old post about the difference between the hero of the story and the hero of the scene: Usually Buffy was the hero of the episode, but when she had scenes with Willow, Willow was often the hero of the scene, correctly pointing out Buffy’s flaws, which Buffy often refused to admit. We knew not to trust Buffy’s judgment on many issues, though that didn’t make us like her any less (usually.)
But even when there’s no one to point out that the hero’s wrong, a prose writer can create distance between us and the hero, even just by telling us her obviously-overblown thoughts. The writer has various ways to let us know or suspect that the hero may have a distorted perception of her own life.
Let’s look at Meg in Madeline L’Engle's “A Wrinkle in Time”: I do wonder if adult reader and tween readers have different reactions to Meg: As an adult, it’s pretty obvious that she has bad self-esteem distorting her view of her world. We suspect that she’s not as weird looking as she perceives, and we even doubt that she really heard all these insults that she thinks she’s heard.
Certainly, when she soon meets a sports-star who thinks she’s beautiful (without her glasses on, anyway), we don’t think, “That’s odd, why is he attracted to this Quasimodo that everyone else finds repulsive?” Instead, we think “I knew she was wrong about her looks, and she was probably imagining some of the criticism.”*
We can also see that Meg is far too scared of her world. When the story begins, she’s cowering in terror from a storm outside, but we’re not so scared. She then gets very scared about reports of a tramp on the loose, but we guess that her fears are overblown. When it becomes clear that her five year old brother has been walking around in the woods and hanging out with the tramp (Hey, it was the ‘70s), and he says she’s okay, we’ve already figured out to trust his judgment more than Meg’s, though we still identify with Meg as our hero, not him. We believe that she’s real, we care about her, we’re invested in her goals …but we don’t trust her perceptions or judgment. We share her hopes, but not her fears, which is a tricky line for a writer to walk.
How does L’Engle do this? By giving Meg a level of hyperbole we don’t trust, but which we find endearing. When L’Engle writes “—I’ll make myself some cocoa, she decided.—That’ll cheer me up, and if the roof blows off, at least I won’t go off with it”, we look down on Meg a little bit, sure that her fears are overblown, but we’re bonded all the more with her as a result. We’re amused that she’s using her overblown fears as an excuse to have a sugary drink. Both the fears and the desire for cocoa are self-indulgent, and we’re amused by the confluence of them, in a slightly-paternalistic way. This is different from full identification, but not so different.
Next, we’ll talk about how this played out in the recent movie…
*I asked my wife, who loved the book as a tween and just read it to our daughter, if she thinks tween readers doubt Meg’s negative perceptions as much as adult readers do and she thinks tween girls at least totally identify with Meg, far longer than adults will, believing (and identifying with) Meg’s negative self-assessment, only doubting it a little when her mother says otherwise, and only seriously doubting it when Calvin says she’s gorgeous (which of course lets them fantasize that they will soon find out from a boy that they’re secretly gorgeous.)