Wednesday, March 21, 2007

It’s all about the breakdown

Whenever I think about character arcs, I get this feeling of dread in my stomach. It’s about the breakdown, or destroying a character’s world. The best breakdown I’ve read has to be Emilio in The Sparrow. It is horrid, beautiful, and believable. If you’ve read the book, you know, but for those who haven’t, I’ll elaborate. When we first meet Emilio he is in a hospital, mutilated, traumatized, and half out of his head over the deaths of his only real friends. The author, Mary Doria Russell, then takes us back to the beginning of the story of Emilio, where he is a charming, if odd, Jesuit priest. He loves everyone, takes care of anyone, and most of the women are annoyed that he is … in the priesthood. Russell takes us on an incredible character journey that shows Emilio’s ascent to sainthood and fall into misery. I only once felt that the situations that push him along this arc was forced, and for the most part, I couldn’t believe how good she was at breaking the spirit of what appeared to be an indomitable soul.

So, that’s my guide. I like to think about whether or not my breakdown is as elegant as Emilio’s. Sometimes, I don’t feel I have the heart to do it, but flat characters are a real bore. It’s better to give them, the characters, immortality through the hardships, then to protect them and have them be flat. You know, I think there might be a life lesson in there.


Do you all have a breakdown benchmark?

1 comment:

bunnygirl said...

I've never really thought of it in the way you describe, but yes, all characters need to have their illusions shattered.

What's interesting to me is how some characters react to that. Most of mine find ways to increase or at least perpetuate their own suffering by doing something inappropriate. Sometimes they find their way out again, sometimes they don't.

More and more, I find myself wanting to write less catastrophic endings for my characters, no matter how badly they screw things up. I don't know that I'll ever be a writer of "happily ever after" endings, but I'm definitely moving away from ending things on a Hamletesque note. Not everyone needs to die. One or two bodies will usually suffice. :-)