12.10.2020

The Blows of Pride

One of the first lessons a novelist learns is that the protagonist should face a series of obstacles. It is telling that so many react to that dictum by creating a series of external obstacles, resembling warriors in a video game to a greater or lesser degree. Even authors with a more literary bent will utilize characters embodying a social theme that oppresses from without. Less common are explorations of what drives a person to fail. Perhaps failure feels too tragic, and most people write to feel good about themselves.

Failure comes in all sorts of varieties—because humans are so good at it—so I’ll focus here on it as a facet of divorce. A breakup is painful in direct proportion to its former promise. While a lucky half of all couples sail through life without it, I think most people have experienced the pain, either directly or as children or as witnesses. The pain of separation is sharp and bitter, and the bitterness never goes away, even if it dulls over time. 

Pride comes before a fall, and that is where failure can play a dynamic role in fiction. Pride can be built up through a series of scenes that show the keyed-on partner as proud to be married, whether that relates to their partner’s status or as parent of praised children. It can also be cultivated through the arguments of the spouses. Marriage is a series of compromises, and when one or both members in a couple refuses to bend, pride of belonging in one’s parental family is frequently the cause. So the parents can be brought into the novel to show what sparks such loyalty. Inherent in all of these interactions, of course, is the failure of the character to realize how blind their loyalty is.

The differences between a couple may be truly irreconcilable, but adding a tragic flaw is more dramatic. That doesn’t include such tawdry factors as workaholism. A tragic flaw stems from a more titanic goodness than that. Identifying what that is and then building the marriage scenes around it shows the poisonous root of the dissolution.

Equally as gripping are the waves of explanations a character makes, in private and to others, after the marriage falls apart. How does an author modulate the complaints to lay bare their shrillness? Does the character learn from the experience, or do they go on in life placing all the blame on the partner? A person can be consumed by bitterness just as easily as by joy. Where does that leave them at the end of the story, on the lonely rock they claim?

Exercise: You can use supporting characters to great effect. A mother’s dislike for her daughter-in-law is an obvious choice, but what about the friend that encourages the character’s growing dissatisfaction? When the divorce is final, what can the friend do to remedy the pain? Or, if the partner left for a new love, how does the newbie stack up against who was lost?

“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.”  —Truman Capote

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.