Sunday, June 26, 2011

Godlike Qualities--and Difficult Moral Choices

"All novelists are godlike. Sovereign creators of worlds they populate with beings wrought from something less than dust and rib, they set events in motion and determine their consequences."
--Leah Hager Cohen, NYT Book Review, Sunday, June 26, 2011

Working away on my new Jane Eyre series, I find this quotation to be particularly apt. Authors bring to life people, give them names and personalities. It's part of the job to determine how their characters look and what habits they have. If the author is successful, then her readers will accept them as real. That's when the fun begins.

This weekend I came up to DC, taught a class on journaling, and sold books at the Great American Scrapbook Convention. A tiring weekend, to be sure, but also a gratifying one. The best part? When readers came to my table and started talking about Kiki Lowenstein and Detweiler and Mert as though these characters were living, breathing people that we knew in common. I delight in how my readers have distinct opinions about what should happen next in Kiki's life.

One woman came up, introduced herself and said, "I'm the only person in my book club who thinks Kiki should marry Ben. He's a good guy. Detweiler has too many issues. Everyone else disagrees with me, but I really like Ben and he'd make a good husband."

That says to me that I've made my characters realistic, because if readers don't care, I haven't fleshed out the people I create. Authors differ in their opinions on this, but I'm definitely in the character-driven fiction camp. If you don't care about the characters, you won't want to spend time with them, IMHO. Even a "bad guy" can be fascinating if he/she has redeeming qualities. Or if the "bad guy" is such a complex, rich study of the best and worst of what humanity has to offer. Case in point: Casey Anthony.

I've been following that case, and I've come to believe it's like watching a train wreck in slow mo. In particular, I found myself glued to the screen when her mother testified that she, not Casey, had googled "chloroform." My heart ached for the woman. She's lost her grandchild, and now faced with losing her daughter to the death penalty, she's decided that she'd rather lie and protect the child she has, rather than watch her child be sentenced to death. That's a powerful study in conflict, isn't it? Where does maternal love end and justice begin? Most of us would throw ourselves under a bus rather than have our children hurt, and that's exactly what Cindy Anthony is doing.

And yet, there's such a fascinating symmetry, an odd irony, because Cindy's love--while misguided--for her child is so powerful that she'll obviously do and say ANYTHING to protect her little girl.

But Casey didn't feel that way. Did she?

What do you think?

PS That's a Zentangle I did while at the Convention.


mollie bryan said...

I completely agree with you on the Anthony case. It's riveting, heartbreaking, and disturbing.
Hope to catch you next year at the GASC.

Charmaine Clancy said...

We do create characters and we can be extremely cruel to them, but of course it's for their own good. They'll thank us one day (wait, maybe that's a mother complex).
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Carol S said...

My husband is following the Anthony case closely and agrees that mom Cindy is lying for her daughter. My opinion is that Casey was very jealous of her daughter Kaylee getting all the attention from her parents she used to receive. Heartbreaking story no matter the verdict.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

I've been reading Diane Fanning's book Mommy's Little Girl, and I tend to agree with Carol's husband, although I think the situation was more complex than that. According to Fanning, Casey was "dating" several men, one who wanted only to have boys because "girls were too hard to raise." At the same time, Casey and Cindy were fighting a lot because Casey was not a good mother--and Cindy was considering requesting custody. Casey wanted her freedom, but she didn't want her mother to have control of Caylee. And Casey is clearly a pathological liar. I think that it all got to be too much for Casey, and she decided that Caylee was an obstacle to her happiness. She posted a poem by Tupac Shakur on her MySpace page, on July 11, and the gist of it is that you should stop trying to make sense of a bad situation and instead, just walk away from your problems and move on with your life.

Whatever the outcome, it's a tragedy.