How Far Does Compassion Go?

They say real life is stranger than fiction, but that isn’t true most of the time. Novels are filled with events that are larger than life. In conjunction with these entertaining scenarios is the heightened reaction by the reader, because the author has curated the takeaways from all the factors involved in the affairs. This refinement process is a given, part of the unspoken compact between writer and reader.

It is also the reason the real-life events don’t have the same sort of emotional impact in a novel. A wrongful accusation of murder, for example, is an outrage to our moral sense. To a certain extent that flush of feeling is the same whether you read about it in a news report or a novel. Yet only in exceptional cases does a reader remain engaged in the real-life event. It is all too easily replaced by the next day’s outrages.

A similar process will happen in a novel if an author uses the wrong tools. To extend the example, what are the repercussions of the accusations? As the ripples spread outward, the power of the original event becomes diffused. Let’s say the novel starts to cover the political ramifications, placing the accused in that context. Then the novel may turn into a tale of those in power against those who aren’t. The accused person in this case may end up being a sideshow—oh, isn’t that just too bad?

Male authors are usually the ones who don’t understand that fictionalizing real events must go beyond animating puppets about whom biographical information is known. I know the mind-set well: I love researching topics, imagining what so-and-so must have been like. Yet I have also learned that curiosity about exploring a topic does not translate into a riveting tale about it. A tale takes concentrated effort of a novelist’s craft.

The advantage of a novel is its ability to telescope the reader’s concern. Within a public case resides a private drama that led to the incident. A novel does not have to be deterministic in order to lay out a background in which the perpetrator inevitably reached their terrible decision. Within that background are usually only a few telling memories that echo in the character’s mind over and over. Only a few people tower in their thoughts. Extending that idea toward the near past, just before the book opened, the character has only a few others that mean so much, the relationship is charged.

Exercise: In research usually a few dominant personalities emerged around the person being highlighted. If there is a historical record of abuse, say, that can be dramatized. Yet because so many private relationships have left no mark, you can make up what you want those relationships to be. If you craft them the right way, they will build all during the novel.

“The intelligence of that creature known as a crowd is the square root of the number of people in it.”
―Terry Pratchett

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.