Sunday, February 17, 2013

Tragedy Tomorrow

"Why are you so cruel?" asked a young writer in my most recent online interview. It's a good question. Why bring misfortune and tragedy upon one's fictional characters?

Telling a compelling story inevitably must involve some sort of conflict, otherwise it's a fairy tale. And even fairy tales often have a level of gruesome tragedy. But what is it about consciously bringing unfortunate events into fictional characters' lives that's such an onerous task?

I like my characters. Heck, in Every Time I Think of You, like many readers, I fell in love with them. So why make them unhappy?

Oscar Pistorius in court
Who could make up a story like that of Oscar Pistorius? Only months ago, I was posting about his amazing victories at the Olympics and the Paralympics. Pistorius was a sexy role model and a hero to millions. 

Then, on Valentine's Day, he allegedly shot his girlfriend four times before crushing her skull with a cricket bat. The owner of numerous guns, Pistorius was allegedly paranoid about home break-ins, and also had prior violent outbursts. Who could make up such a horrid story? Who would want to?

Because real life includes tragedy, of course it's always been that way since the first formal storytelling.  And telling a good story involves some element of sadness, regret and mistakes. 

Thus is the human condition, fictional or not. In real life, we gasp in shock or shake our heads, hoping for resolve, answers, and a cynical media, quick to jump on tragedies ("If it bleeds, it leads" goes the saying), are also quick to abandon a real life news tragedy as soon as it fails to keep the attention of viewers and readers.

For many writers, particularly in fiction, mystery and horror, our job is to go where others retreat. We have to ponder misery and misfortune. My prior fiction works involved death, AIDS, break-ups, near-fatal injuries, and a few other lesser tragedies. Cheerful stuff, huh?

With my focus on the lives of people with disabilities, several events continue to stun me with the level of pain and suffering people endure. Sometimes they don't endure, like the man with Down's Syndrome who was most probably murdered while under police custody (story link).

This time around, in my little fictive world, it's once again painful to induce unfortunate events on my new favorite characters, Reid and Everett. Compounded with that is the historical inevitability of unpleasant events that already happened when the book is set. But don't worry. They're not going to get murdered or imprisoned.

Perhaps making stuff up is less difficult than retracing historical events. Perhaps I should be writing science fiction or fantasy books where I don't have to worry about comparing reality to fiction.

But the quest of finding a balance in dramatic narrative without veering into melodrama continues to be an intriguing challenge. Aspects of a disabled character can so easily veer into cliche, and from some of my reading of other books, it often does.

Newer books in fiction and nonfiction allow disabled characters to be something between the "inspirational" role model or the stereotypical bitter loser who needs someone to cheer them up.  As a Slate article comments, "We expected more from Oscar Pistorius because he's disabled." Those presumptions need to be discarded.

Kevin Michael Connolly
And yet, for every sad tale, there are more uplifting and wonderful stories of real people, who, yes, inspire.  A new Travel Channel show starring Kevin Michael Connolly, a 27 year old from Montana, is called Armed and Ready. The avid traveler and photographer, born without legs, made artistic and cultural waves with his personal perspective.

And kudos to the woman who was attacked while in her wheelchair, then later found and got her attacker arrested (source: NY Daily News). Now there's an inspiration, and a real life tragedy turned victory.

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