Saturday, November 10, 2012

Do your characters grieve?

It occurred to me as I watch the presidential election cycle play out in social and broadcast media that the Republican Party is collectively going through the five (or seven, depending upon whom you reference) cycles of grief. Briefly those are, in order of appearance, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

That observation, in turn led me to wonder if fiction writers are portraying grief (at least with major characters) in their work. It is an open question and would love to hear what fellow ink-stained toilers think. Feel free to leave comments below.

Using the GOP as a model, what can we learn as writers. If you have been watching, it was apparent on election night that the cognoscenti of the right were beyond astonishment that their candidate was losing, and watching Karl Rove desperately deny the math on Fox News was a supreme example of denial.

What has followed has been the backlash of anger among people who dumped so much cash into Super PACs, media types that make a living stirring up their bases, and rank and file flaming on social media. Politicians are already in the bargaining stage where they will likely learn a 'my way or the highway' approach will no longer will have much currency in Washington. Depression will follow along with acceptance. But political parties tend to react more slowly than  individuals so another display of cultural disconnect may come their way in a couple of years.

But how do we translate grief into our fiction? Whether we wish to portray a societal shift such as the one currently occurring or a personal one happening to a character? I would posit that a clear understanding of these stages is paramount and should be represented as action or dialogue rather than exposition. Take the following as an example:

'Dr. Melman saw the disbelief in Audrey's eyes when he explained the diagnosis of breast cancer and, at age thirty-one, she would lose both her breasts and suffer extensive bouts of chemotherapy. What he hadn't yet told her was that it was probably a losing battle.'

It contains all the information, but none of emotion, the shock, that such a revelation should have at its core. Let's look at another stab at the same scenario:

"I'm afraid I have some bad news, Audrey. It's definitely breast cancer and it is a pretty aggressive type. I'm sorry."
"Are your certain, Dr. Melman?" She had reflexively put her hands to her breasts and then touched her silky blonde hair. Her soft blue eyes had widened, with tears threatening to spill down her cheeks. "This can't be happening to me, I don't have any family history of cancer." She gulped air reflexively then set her jaw, "There must be some mistake. I can't have cancer."
"I'm sorry, Audrey. There's no mistake. I checked the biopsy report myself." The doctor had seen this reaction countless times before and it still tugged at his heart each time he delivered the news. "On the bright side, you're young and otherwise healthy, so you should tolerate the surgery and chemotherapy pretty well."
"Surgery?" The shock was complete now. "Chemotherapy?" She wiped ineffectually at the tears that now ran freely down her face.
"Yes, and I would suggest a double radical mastectomy as soon as possible. We can't begin chemo until you heal from the surgery." Melman handed her a box of tissues. "I would suggest you have a conversation with your family."
"There's only Joe." The silence hung heavy in the air of the overly warm, claustrophobic exam room. "He's my boyfriend."
"Well, he needs to know and you'll need his help."
"I suppose. Can I ask you one more thing, Doctor?"
"What are my chances?"
Melman appraised his patient; young, beautiful, single trying to gauge his response so it left some hope he didn't really believe was there.
"About fifty percent over five years."
"And if I choose no treatment?"
"Six months, maximum."
"What do you really think?"
Now it was Dr. Melman's turn to gulp down some air. He fought to maintain his professional composure and force the lump back down his throat.
"If it were me, I would enjoy the next few months and call it quits." In his professional career he had never given such advice, but right here, right now, it seemed the only fair thing to do.
Audrey sat up straight, hooked her bra and began buttoning her blouse. The tears had stop flowing now and she stood up, collecting her purse and offered her hand which Melman grasped with both of his.
"Thank you, Dr. Melman. I suppose we probably won't see each other again. I'm planning a vacation to Tuscany."

Okay I just crammed all the stages in a few lines done on the fly without any serious editing and admittedly a serious treatment would be considerably longer than cranking out one paragraph of exposition, but I think it is still a useful exercise. Part of the human condition is grief, and giving an authentic voice to your characters will enrich your fiction and draw your readers deeper into your stories. Try it the next time tragedy is about to befall someone in your work and I think you will be pleased with the result.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012


It is no accident that technology advances exponentially. We humans are clever in applying learning in novel ways to solve increasingly complex challenges. Perhaps our greatest challenge going forward is learning how to live with this acceleration. Scientists are discovering that our children's brains are being fundamentally rewired in how they learn, what they learn and how they manipulate these new tools into a world I couldn't have imagined as a youngster.

And yet I did imagine it, and so did others. Twenty years ago I wondered aloud one day where were all those 'cars of the future' I saw in Popular Mechanics. Now I look around and see them everywhere (okay, I still don't have my flying car, but I remain optimistic). In fiction, Captain Nemo, Flash Gordon and Dick Tracy preceded Gene Roddenberry's Kirk and Spock, predicting 4G cell phones, medical diagnostics, voice actuated equipment, satellite navigation systems, e books, tablet computers. These were delivered by scientists inspired as children to ask, 'why not?' and refusing to take no for an answer.

The problem is that all these quantum advances scientifically aren't designed to work well with the linear evolution of us as human animals. We've transmogrified from hunter-gathers of food, shelter and clothing into hunter-gatherers of data, comfort and entertainment. Our girth (physically and in our credit card statements) reflects our appetites both literally and figuratively and the trends aren't showing much chance of improvement anytime soon.

It may be that this political election season just concluded is illustrative of the disconnect between the linear and the quantum side of human evolution. The majority of voting citizens re-elected a liberal, multi-ethnic president with Hussein as a middle name over a conservative, rich, white, Mormon. Convincingly in the electoral college, marginally in the popular vote, but substantially in the direction in which the country is headed culturally. That the Grand Old Party is on the verge of becoming the Grand Obsolete Party is startling to  the party faithful mainly because they simply could not (and for many still do not) see the forest for the trees. The signs of change have been apparent to demographers for decades, but the mostly old, white, rich men that direct the party have sequestered themselves in an isolated echo chamber where they hear only what they wish to hear as told to them by only those to whom they wish to listen. (An excellent analysis of this phenomenon can be found here.)

Personally, I think the tipping point has been reached, and the brittle rhetoric of theocratic underpinnings for governance is increasingly rejected as harsh, doctrinaire and unresponsive to the greater needs of a plural society. A society that was founded on the absence of church doctrine in governance, and a system of justice blind (and therefore not beholden) to race, religion, social status and financial means. In the two plus centuries since our Founders cobbled together this nation, each step toward the perfection of the union has been a struggle. In the beginning they couldn't even agree to outlaw slavery and it took over two hundred years for a person of color to ascend to the highest office, and we have yet to elect a woman. Women's rights, voting rights, LGBT rights, and whatever oppressive practices we continue to fight were, and are, ongoing struggles to adapt to change. The reins of power are changing from the Baby Boomers to the Next Gen, and each transition meets resistance and disbelief from the old guards.

Coming to grips with the velocity of change, reexamining our basic assumptions about who and what we are as a nation, and stepping back from the hollow grandiloquence of insisting the old ways are the only ways will be essential moving forward. Wallowing in self-pity and bemoaning the fate of the Union at the election results is delusional. Each time we come together to vote as a nation we tell our leaders where and how we wish to advance our grand experiment called the United States. To the extent our leaders cling to broken models and irrelevant posturing forestalls the inevitable. Conservatives wishing to have a seat at the table going forward need new leadership that understands function must drive form, that making reasonable compromises doesn't equate to 'my way or the highway', nor does it equal moral equivocation. Not even the church still thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, so let's roll up our sleeves and get to work on what needs to be done to plan for the future, for however much some among us might wish it, the past has passed and a new paradigm calls for fresh thinking. As my fourth grade teacher used to say, "Let's put our thinking caps on, shall we?"