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A discussion about melancholy characterization...

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction and Writing Resource' started by ShrunkenJedi, Mar 26, 2005.

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  1. ShrunkenJedi

    ShrunkenJedi Jedi Knight star 5

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    Apr 26, 2003
    I was thinking a lot about this, and decided to turn this into a discussion here, to get some opinions...

    A lot of times you may want your characters to hurt. A lot. You may want them to have a bit of post traumatic stress from being in some physically torturous situations... or they may just be acutely reminded of some horrific experiences. I've done it. Professionals do it. But it seems to me that it's possible to take it too far, or have it actually impede your story and characterization. So, what do you think you can do to know how far you should go?

    Some ideas I can think of, several of which I'm sure I have been guilty of...

    1. The stress should come from something that is actually described in the story, rather than something that is only implied.

    2. The character should be well-developed prior to the stress being applied, and well-developed in the sense that it's very cleaer that this character would absolutely feel this bad about the situation at that particular moment.

    3. The character should NOT be melancholy for the whole duration... especially not if he/she is the viewpoint character.

    4. The stress should direct the character to some sort of action, rather than to inaction. Even though it is easy enough for stress to lead to inaction in the real world (beleive me!), this does not make for particularly exciting plot.

    [face_thinking] So, what do you think...
     
  2. dianethx

    dianethx Jedi Master star 6

    Registered:
    Mar 1, 2002
    3. The character should NOT be melancholy for the whole duration... especially not if he/she is the viewpoint character.

    It depends on your character and also how long a timeframe your story takes. A depressed character may have something change in the story (so that there is a beginning and an end) but may still be depressed through the whole story.

    4. The stress should direct the character to some sort of action, rather than to inaction. Even though it is easy enough for stress to lead to inaction in the real world (beleive me!), this does not make for particularly exciting plot.

    Plot may also be entirely internal in which case there could be inaction throughout the entire plot. Yet, an internal plot can be very exciting if done properly. Luke musing about how Ben betrayed him (right after TESB) could be a very interesting story and yet he could just be sitting in the med center the whole time.

    It really depends on the story, the characters and how the author plays it.
     
  3. DarthIshtar

    DarthIshtar Jedi Grand Master star 9

    Registered:
    Mar 26, 2001
    1. The stress should come from something that is actually described in the story, rather than something that is only implied.

    I agree that it can't just be implied. Half of the power of this sort of situation is in making the reader experience it on their own level. Thrusting us into the reason for suffering is some of the most important stuff of suffering in the first place.

    2. The character should be well-developed prior to the stress being applied, and well-developed in the sense that it's very cleaer that this character would absolutely feel this bad about the situation at that particular moment.

    This is a tricky point. Is circumstantial suffering effective, something that we understand why it's horrifying, but are detached from?

    3. The character should NOT be melancholy for the whole duration... especially not if he/she is the viewpoint character.

    Well, sometimes, that's not realistic. Some people believe that it is their whole existence to a certain point. There can be depths of despair that deep. It's very tailored to the circumstance and character. For vignette, this level of melancholy might work, but definitely not on a larger scale.

    4. The stress should direct the character to some sort of action, rather than to inaction. Even though it is easy enough for stress to lead to inaction in the real world (beleive me!), this does not make for particularly exciting plot.

    You'd be good in the old New Sadistic Sith Order--our motto is "Pain with purpose, love with limits."
     
  4. poor yorick

    poor yorick Ex-Mod star 6 VIP - Former Mod/RSA VIP - Game Host

    Registered:
    Jun 25, 2002
    1. The stress should come from something that is actually described in the story, rather than something that is only implied.

    Yeah . . . it kind of pains me when somebody starts a story off with a 2 paragraph infodump about this terrible, horrible (more exciting than what's actually in the story) thing that happened to a character, just to hurry up and get to the whimpering and snurgling part. "Recovery" stories can work (see below), but they're pretty much distinct from "Obi-Wan's best friend who is never introduced or described has just died, and now Obi-Wan's a wreck" stories.

    2. The character should be well-developed prior to the stress being applied, and well-developed in the sense that it's very cleaer that this character would absolutely feel this bad about the situation at that particular moment.

    I was a little confused by this one, but I think what you're saying here is that a character's reactions should be believably proportionate to what's going on around them. An author wouldn't have to do much work to convince us that Luke would be pretty upset over the whole "his father turning back to the good side and then immediately keeling over" thing. I mean, one would be. If he's all flipped out because he asked Mara to pick up some blue milk on the way home and she forgot, then we need to see some good reasons why.

    So in other words . . . No more Luke/Obi-Wan/Anakin/whoever wailing and carrying on for no reason!

    3. The character should NOT be melancholy for the whole duration... especially not if he/she is the viewpoint character.

    I hear you on this one . . . especially if the story's a long one. 200 pages of depression is, well, rather a lot. I have a hard time with ceaseless moping in shorter stories, too, although obviously not everyone does. It's not that someone needs to have crazy mood swings and go from dismal to chirpy in the course of a 1,000 word story, but I'd rather the viewpoint character broke up the monotony of his moping with at least vague, fleeting moments of anger, tenderness, bitter amusement, remorse, hope, nostalgia . . . *anything.* I think characters come off better and the audience connects more personally to their pain if there's something for that pain to stand out against.

    4. The stress should direct the character to some sort of action, rather than to inaction. Even though it is easy enough for stress to lead to inaction in the real world (beleive me!), this does not make for particularly exciting plot.

    I agree with you about this, although the "standing there, staring off into space" internal monologue is a very popular sub-genre, especially for vignettes. At least half of the submissions to the archive are of this very type. "Standing there moping" pieces *can* work, especially if they're short and show us something new that casts a whole different light on the character, but my opinion is that most of them don't. Interestingly, a high proportion of the successful ones seem to involve Vader, probably because he's so mysterious behind that mask. Having him think almost anything seems novel and makes the reader look at the character differently.

    A character can be moved to "action" without getting up and chasing stormtroopers around, of course. "Recovery" plots fall into this category. To revisit the example someone used above, say Luke's sitting there emotionally and physically convalescing in the med bay after ESB, feeling confused and betrayed. He knows he can't sit there and mope forever, because this is not one of those vignettes in which people do that. So, he has to find some way to be able to get up and go on even though he's heard these terrible words from Vader. Luke can choose to: A) feel bitter an disillusioned, resolving not to believe too much in mentors in the future, B) have faith that somehow Ben wasn't trying to backstab him, and that things will seem less bleak when he hears the whole truth, C) disbelieve Vader entirely, D) set the matter aside in the name of duty and getting back to wo
     
  5. ShrunkenJedi

    ShrunkenJedi Jedi Knight star 5

    Registered:
    Apr 26, 2003
    Ish-- You'd be good in the old New Sadistic Sith Order--our motto is "Pain with purpose, love with limits." Sounds like fun! :p

    Ophelia--
    the "standing there, staring off into space" internal monologue is a very popular sub-genre, especially for vignettes. At least half of the submissions to the archive are of this very type. "Standing there moping" pieces *can* work, especially if they're short and show us something new that casts a whole different light on the character, but my opinion is that most of them don't.

    A character can be moved to "action" without getting up and chasing stormtroopers around, of course.


    Exactly!

    Now, what I'm trying to do here is find guidelines for what works and what doesn't, so that it's easier to realize when a plot of mine may or may not work as I'd like. I truly beleive that there are no hard and fast rules in writing, any can be broken for a good reason! Feel free and encouraged to propose your own guidelines. ;)
     
  6. ThePariah

    ThePariah Jedi Padawan star 4

    Registered:
    Jan 24, 2003
    Oy, this thread is very good for me. I don't have a problem justifying stressful responses from my characters, but I'm always on pins and needles about whether their reaction is too extreme or ludicrous. One of the reasons I backed off of Love Thy Enemy was that I finally stopped to notice I had Luke getting major emotional breakdowns three times in the space of 24 hours. I don't care that he'd just been through the hardest day of his life and was now stuck with the dilemma of betraying everything he believed in and everyone he loved--that just looked bad. Luke is a sensitive guy, but he's not a pansy.

    And then I'm afraid of going back and editing and turning it into a flat, emotionless glop. I'm big on angst but I want to cut back to spare people the melodrama...but I don't know how far back to keep the trimming.
     
  7. dianethx

    dianethx Jedi Master star 6

    Registered:
    Mar 1, 2002
    I usually try and track how people are reacting - sort of a guide when things need to lighten up. So I use less intense words and actions in the quiet times and then gear up for the really emotional times.

    Plus that works for comedy as well as angst. Can't have humor all the time because it lessens the impact.
     
  8. Idrelle_Miocovani

    Idrelle_Miocovani Jedi Master star 6

    Registered:
    Feb 5, 2005
    1. The stress should come from something that is actually described in the story, rather than something that is only implied.

    I agree. Especially with OCs in fan fiction, you need to have something that the reader can relate to (not sure if I'm wording this correctly, :p) other than some vague fact that is described shortly that you only know about. Does that make sense?

    2. The character should be well-developed prior to the stress being applied, and well-developed in the sense that it's very cleaer that this character would absolutely feel this bad about the situation at that particular moment.

    Umm... let me think about this one.

    3. The character should NOT be melancholy for the whole duration... especially not if he/she is the viewpoint character.

    I agree with this. Han's reaction to Chewie's death in NJO drove me crazy because it went on... and on... and on.

    4. The stress should direct the character to some sort of action, rather than to inaction. Even though it is easy enough for stress to lead to inaction in the real world (beleive me!), this does not make for particularly exciting plot.

    Hmmm, yeah. Agreed. Let me think about this some more.

    Have you ever read any of those old melodromatic clichés from the 1800s? (Jane Eyre, etc). Some of those drive me wild because of the melancholy romance. I'm just finishing reading The Scottish Chiefs and one of the main characters, Helen, is always fainting because of "oh so frightening" scenes and melodramatic mush. I think that's one way NOT to write. It's a bit heavy.
     
  9. Alethia

    Alethia Jedi Master star 5

    Registered:
    Feb 13, 2005


    And then I'm afraid of going back and editing and turning it into a flat, emotionless glop. I'm big on angst but I want to cut back to spare people the melodrama...but I don't know how far back to keep the trimming.


    Why not leave what you have and start from where you are now with cutting down on the melodrama. Personally I think it's fine like it is, but since you seem so worried about it, yet you don't know how to fix it- why not leave what you have and try the new style where you left off`? That should, in theory, work. I think. And it saves you the trouble of not knowing how far back to trim...


    As for the actual thread:

    I'm a big drama writer, a huge fan of monlogues and delving deep into character's thoughts and bringing out emotions. And um, I think I've found exceptions to all your guidelines.

    On the other hand, they are guidleines and they're very handy to keep in mind when you don't write much about melancholy characters. It's just that, oh 95% of my characters are melancholy for at least part of my fics, so I've kind of thrown out all the guidelines...

    ...And created my own, sort of. In my book, as long as there's a reason, it's fine. And there has to be an appropiate reaction for that reason. There's a difference between learning that your cat has died and that your husband is dead, for one thing. Unless you absolutely hate your husband and you adored your cat... But anyway, as long as there's reasons and perspective, I think it works.

    3. The character should NOT be melancholy for the whole duration... especially not if he/she is the viewpoint character.

    This one, for me, depends on the length. If it's shorter, than I can see it. Like, a fic that takes place over a week, but just after the Bespin Duel between Luke and Vader I can see Luke being melancholy for the entire fic. He just went against Vader, lost a hand and then learns that he's his father? Plus now he knows that both Ben and Yoda, his two Masters, who he has trusted, have lied to him. A week of being melancholy would be fine, in my opinion, though he should probably lighten up towards the end. Then again, it might be interesting to see what would happen if he hid his feelings and just acted like he was okay, but really it was sill storming in side of him...

    And I just came up with another exception. Great... But yes, longer fics, I mean novel length ones, should usually not be entirely melancholy. Unless they, again, are only taking place over a short amount of time.

    Either that, or you have depressed characters with actual problems like Depression or PTSD or Maniac Depressive or other things of that nature, that don't really require reasons- because they're medical problems that flare up on occasion and there's not much you can do about that. And this also sort of fits into the The stress should come from something that is actually described in the story, rather than something that is only implied.
    rule...well, as an exception to it.

    . The stress should direct the character to some sort of action, rather than to inaction. Even though it is easy enough for stress to lead to inaction in the real world (beleive me!), this does not make for particularly exciting plot

    Again- see my medical problems list. Yeah, I know I'm probably being a pain. But coming up with exceptions is sort of fun at the moment. But yeah, based on real life, inaction is often a reacion. Of course, reading a novel length fic with nothing going on isn't going to be much fun to read either...

    It's all about balance, in my opinion. And sometimes reaction can mean different things. Pretty much I'm going to agree with ophelia with this point.


    Going with what the reader says can also help if you don't know exactly how much is enough/ too much. And trial and error. And putting yourself in the place of the charcter and asking 'if I were X, how would I be reacting right now?' can really help.

    Basically, though I think the guidelines are a go
     
  10. Shadowen

    Shadowen Jedi Youngling star 3

    Registered:
    May 11, 1999
    Addendum to rule 4:

    The character may be moved to inaction by the depression; however, the character should, in this case, have friends who snap him out of it (see the Wraith Squadron books particularly).
     
  11. dianethx

    dianethx Jedi Master star 6

    Registered:
    Mar 1, 2002
    Have you ever read any of those old melodromatic clichés from the 1800s? (Jane Eyre, etc). Some of those drive me wild because of the melancholy romance. I'm just finishing reading The Scottish Chiefs and one of the main characters, Helen, is always fainting because of "oh so frightening" scenes and melodramatic mush. I think that's one way NOT to write. It's a bit heavy.

    As a complete aside, there was a reason why they were always fainting. The corsets were so tight that if they were frightened, they might not be able to breathe. During the 1800's it was considered 'fun' to startle young ladies (there was a fashion of spider jewelry in Williamsburg for that very purpose).

    But, of course, that has nothing to do with melodramatic mush.

    Move along. Move along.
     
  12. ShrunkenJedi

    ShrunkenJedi Jedi Knight star 5

    Registered:
    Apr 26, 2003
    Yep, again with the "always exceptions to the rule" ;)

    And the having to find your own style! Absolutely!

    ...But... Sometime it clearly can impede the plot. And sometimes it's hard to know just how far to take it...

    Shall we try a real-world example here?
    Example: In my first fic, I had Anakin and Obi-Wan be sent on a mission to the Trade Federation. Maybe about 11 pages. This brought back some bad feelings for Obi-Wan because of what happened in Ep. 1 (especially Qui-Gon's death), so although he was the responsible Jedi, he was a bit out of it for the duration. Anakin was the viewpoint character, and he noticed, but it wasn't to the point where anyone else would notice. But it did probably keep Obi from making that particular trip a success...

    It's one I've done a lot of revising on, but it's possibly this plot point I don't feel completely comfortable with, which is too much a part of the plot for me to take out... ie, I have doubts about it myself, so don't hold back the critique ;)
     
  13. MistiWhitesun

    MistiWhitesun Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Aug 16, 2004
    I sorta think of an event as a dishrag?okay, not really, but here's the closest analogy I can make to how I feel about it.

    Each event has its own material and can only hold so much water. The most you can realistically wring from an event is limited to how much water the event's dishrag can hold.

    But to keep the "reality," you also have to keep the character's personality in mind. Some dishes (as in analogy, not slang) are more susceptible to water than others. And that's how much you can have your character affected.

    This is an imperfect analogy, but the one I came up with was way too complicated. So that's the simple version.

    As far as "how much is too much"?the only way you're going to get too much is if you a) don't know your characters, b) don't know your situation, or c) are a hopeless phobic or romantic.

    No offense intended to the hopeless phobics or romantics out there. There are those who like you.

    And I highly doubt that I've made sense?
     
  14. CarrKicksDoor

    CarrKicksDoor Jedi Master star 3

    Registered:
    Jan 16, 2005
    1. The stress should come from something that is actually described in the story, rather than something that is only implied.

    I don't know that I agree with this one--one OC character that I had in one of my stories had lost her fiance and her sister in the same battle prior to the beginning of the story (she was Jag's sister). It was important that you know what had happened, but as the action itself didn't directly affect the main plotline, I didn't think it was necessary.

    2. The character should be well-developed prior to the stress being applied, and well-developed in the sense that it's very cleaer that this character would absolutely feel this bad about the situation at that particular moment.

    This, I absolutely agree with. Without a well-developed (at least in your own mind) character, it makes no sense. I think if, through the reaction to the stress, that the reader gets the fact that they do feel bad about it, though, it's good.

    3. The character should NOT be melancholy for the whole duration... especially not if he/she is the viewpoint character.

    This I also agree with. Even those who have horrible lives have to have occasional happy moments--those can define us just as much as the stress does.

    4. The stress should direct the character to some sort of action, rather than to inaction. Even though it is easy enough for stress to lead to inaction in the real world (beleive me!), this does not make for particularly exciting plot.

    Absolutely! Terry Brooks had a quote in one of his books, Sometimes the Magic Works, that said "Movement = Growth. Growth = Change. Without change, nothing happens." It has to make the character want to change, whether internally or externally.

    Anyway, my two cents. :D

    ~Carr
     
  15. LLL

    LLL Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Registered:
    Jul 16, 2000
    "Watching a character struggle to make a change or come to a resolution is usually interesting. Listening to someone just talk about how really, really, really, really bad they feel for 5 or 10 or 100 pages generally isn't."

    Amen, sister!!! So many ppl write stories like this. I think a few ought to be in the archive, because the archive is supposed to be representative of what fans write and, Lord knows, a lot of fans DO write these. But overall, they aren't interesting after you've read something like 100 of them. Unless one has something about it which really makes it stand out, I end up rejecting most of these.

    Another principle that should be added to the list: Don't use a sledgehammer when a light dusting is all that is required. (See my article "The Feeling Dump" in the archive for more information.)

    I think a related issue that every fic writer should consider is how self-aware his characters can realistically be expected to be. Many writers write an angst in which a character explores his feelings on whatever is upsetting him in very concrete detail and at length, suffering mightily all the while.
    But in real life, people seldom have the courage or stomach to do this. The much-heralded obesity epidemic in America is a huge (no pun intended) example of that very problem. Many times we can't face the fact that we are miserably unhappy at our job, for example, because if we did we'd want to leave it, and we're afraid to be without the salary, the benefits, the security. What if we couldn't find another one as good? So we numb our feelings by finishing off the pie. Or the 39-year-old woman who wants a baby can really see, if she were honest with herself, that her boyfriend isn't going to marry her, and will never want kids. But she doesn't want to face that, because then she'd have to leave him, and what if she can't find another guy? So she mindlessly stuffs food in front of the TV, and in the morning tunes in to the "I Feel Fat" show that plays endlessly in the mind of every female in the Western hemisphere.

    In real life, this is how most people handle trauma and trouble. In fan fic, the same woman would ponder exactly what the *real* issue is, shedding endless tears as she goes over and over her sense of disappointment. But in many if not most cases, this isn't a realistic treatment of an upsetting situation, because most characters just aren't a.) always self-aware enough to *know* what is truly upsetting them at that moment, and b.) even if they are, it takes tremendous honesty and courage to really think the thoughts and deal with that level of pain. In real life, we only do this after six months of therapy that we had to get because we lost our job after trying to drown the problem in alcohol until we got fired. Do you see what I'm getting at?

    That isn't to say that you *can't* have a fan fic character deal squarely and honestly with the painful feelings engendered by an upsetting situation. But you need to think clearly about who it is. Anakin, for example, is one character who isn't very self-aware. If he had the emotional maturity and courage to deal with painful feelings more directly, he would never have needed to slaughter those sand people in the first place. Qui-Gon? Yoda? Now, *they* might have the maturity to conduct the sort of internal dialogue that most fan ficcers seem to like to write.

    On a related note, I often notice problems with two characters in conversation. My bf is a professional novelist and has this very problem when he has to write an emotional conversation. If you ever get a secondhand copy of _Dying Embers_ by Robert E. Bailey, look at the scenes where Art is arguing with his wife or, especially, reacting to a note she wrote him regarding the emotional arguments, and tell me if you can decipher exactly WHAT Bob means you to understand about the conclusions this character is making. There are good examples in there of writing that is too vague.

    So in his forthcoming book (largely because I complained so bitterly about the previous one
     
  16. LLL

    LLL Jedi Grand Master star 4

    Registered:
    Jul 16, 2000
    It died??

    :(

    UP!
     
  17. agentj

    agentj Jedi Knight star 2

    Registered:
    Dec 3, 2004
    Good thing you brought this back. I forgot about it.

    With RotS just around the corner, everybody's gonna get a strong jolt of angst when that comes out. I mean, c'mon. Anakin goes Dark. It's not supposed to be a happy ending here.

    There is a fine line between rampant angst and the kind of sorrowful angst that makes you really feel for the characters. It probably helps if your character isn't wallowing in it, I think. I mean, it's bad for them, but they're still pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps (or getting some help in that regards). I think that keeps it from going overboard. Sure, things are bad, but they can take it in a way. So if you have a longer drawn-out story, you have moments of good times and moments of bad times. A story that popped into my head that I think does it well is [link=http://boards.theforce.net/The_Saga/b10476/14616381/]The Water's Edge[/link]. Here's an Obi-Wan from a really twisted reality where everything went wrong (even more than the GFFA we know), and he lands in a reality where everything's pretty good, so the balance is built in.
     
  18. ShrunkenJedi

    ShrunkenJedi Jedi Knight star 5

    Registered:
    Apr 26, 2003
    Good point! The tolerance in longer fics and shorter fics is certainly different, and it also depends on the atmosphere you want to create. I mean, a Holden Caulfield type of character in his own reality can sustain it for pretty long, but trying to pin that level of angst to Obi-Wan, or even Anakin (the king of true gffa teen angst) just isn't going to cut it!
     
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