“You’re as bad as Walt Disney,” my editor said to me after finishing a draft of one of my WIPs (Works in Progress). “All your characters are orphans.”
“That’s not true,” said I, vehemently. “I mean, okay, Ellie from my Coffee and Crime mysteries is, but Ellie’s parents’ murder is part of the series arc. In my steampunk book, though, the main character, Jonathan… oh. Still, his father was really old when he died.”
“Yeah, but his mother died when he was young.”
“Okay, okay, but in the space opera trilogy, Peder’s parents—”
“Are dead. He was dropped off on the door step of his foster father’s estate when he was three.”
Hmm. I thought back across my many myriad novels, both finished and unfinished and I had to admit, my editor was right. I seemed to have a thing for characters with dead parents. If not outright orphans, all of them seemed to have one dead parental unit. Which got me wondering why.
The answer came almost instantly. It’s all Walt Disney’s fault. I remember when I was little, how I had to be taken, crying inconsolably, out of the theater whenever my mom would take me to see a Disney movie. Bambi, Dumbo, Pinnochio. Orphans all, and a plot line rife with personal loss. Is it any wonder I have this template of the hero that includes the death of a parent? The better question is, what the heck was wrong with Walt Disney? I didn’t create this monster. He did!
“One could reason,” I therefore proposed to my editor, “that the death of a parent or parents leaves an indelible mark on a character. Those kinds of traumatic events make for great internal conflict and give the character depth and resilience. Right?”
“Yeah,” she said, “but you kill them in such gruesome ways. Remember in that fantasy novel how you killed the guy’s parents in a raid on their village? And then, just when the kid was living happily with a foster father, you had the house attacked and his foster father eviscerated on the stairs.” She shuddered. “I mean, who does that? Wouldn’t a knife in the back have sufficed?”
“I was going for pathos.”
“An arrow through the chest is pathos. Evisceration is Roger Corman.”
Pah! “It was dramatic,” I countered, and ended the discussion.
Still, it caused me to ponder. Good books are rife with horrific events – not necessarily physically horrific, but certainly emotionally so. The reader wouldn’t care much about the story if the stakes for the character weren’t high. Yet even so… it seems to me that writers – or maybe just me in particular – find great joy in torturing our characters. Again and again and again. I mean, wasn’t it Nabokov who said that the job of a writer is to chase your character up a tree and then once they’re up there, throw rocks at them?
Think you’re safe up there now? Hah! I can fix that.
See, this is what it’s like to be a writer. The goal is always ‘just how bad can I make it for this poor soul?’. And then, just when the reader thinks it can’t possibly get any worse… heh heh heh.
You kill their OTHER parent!
My non-writer friends tell me it’s probably a good thing that I’m a writer, cuz otherwise I might do all these horrific things to real people (wait, these characters ARE real people…at least to me). I always smile sweetly and respond with, how do you know I’m not writing from experience? That usually shuts ’em up.
Illegitimi non carborundum!