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Monday, December 26, 2011

Back to the Sympathy Question

I hope your Christmas was merry. Happy Boxing Day! (at least for the Canadians and Aussies in our midst).

As promised, I'm meandering a little farther into that question of what makes a character sympathetic and when she becomes simply pathetic. A novelist friend told me she likes to put her characters "through hell" before she lets them have a happy ending. That certainly works -- sometimes.

As a popular example of what has worked, let's look at the Harry Potter series. When we first meet Harry, he's a 10-year-old orphan, turning 11, living under the stairs in an abusive situation where cousin Dudley is king. As the series progresses, we see him go through a variety of emotional and physical tortures at Hogwart's, in company with the Order of the Phoenix, and finally, in an all-out war. Surely Harry is put through hell before he gets his happy ending.

Of course along the way there are humorous, fun moments, discoveres of joyous wonder and delight, fast friendships solidified, and an array of successful, happy moments as well as the dark ones.

But what if we had skipped Hagrid and the trip to Hogwart's, Nearly Headless Nick and Dumbledore, and had spent the whole first book watching Harry suffer abuse at the hands of his reluctant relatives on Privet Drive? My guess? There never would have been a second book or the Harry Potter phenomenon that has enthralled the world. We want to see people triumph over terror and tragedy. Watching victims while they endlessly suffer is a different kind of torture, not an enjoyable reading experience.

Perhaps the question is part pacing (How much shall I let him suffer here before I cut off this scene?) and part balance (That torment she just went through was terrible. I need to give her a triumph equal to it before we move on.) I suspect it all comes down to knowing our audience: what they want, how much sad they will endure before a moment of comic relief, how much sorrow they can handle before we give them joy. It's a delicate balance, but well worth learning.

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