Saturday, December 26, 2015

Can You Make Your Readers Cry?

Sentimental -- what does the word mean?
I found this picture at  North American Victorian Studies Assoc.
No artist was given or further credit,
but it certainly sums up Victorian sentimentality
       According to, sentimental means "expressive of or appealing to sentiment, especially the tender emotions and feelings, as love, pity, or nostalgia [as] a sentimental song."  But the entry goes on to give another meaning: "weakly emotional; mawkishly susceptible or tender [as] the sentimental Victorians." It's that latter meaning that critics commonly employ when they condemn a book as sentimental.  I was always taught as an English major to avoid sentimentality at all costs.
       Yet as a writer I agree with that only up to a point.  I certainly believe that excessive, unjustified emotion should be avoided.  The story that dwells on the "tragedy" of a dead kitten or emotes for pages about how much a mother loves her dying child is not my cup of tea.  And of course I think many stories don't require any sentiment -- for example, murder mysteries or crime stories, especially the kind where the fun part is solving the mystery; or straightforward adventure tales, like the Indiana Jones movies; or a lot of science fiction, particularly the space opera variety.
       But any story that focuses on character needs to bring the reader to tears at some point, because that demonstrates that the author succeeded in making the reader care about the character.  If you read straight through and close the book and say, "That's an OK story, but now I'm done at last and I can forget about it" -- or worse, if the reader abandons reading halfway through, saying, "Ho hum, I just can't get involved emotionally with these characters," then I fear the writer has failed.
       Can you believe that a number of people who have read my series The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head, and also its precursor, my novel The Termite Queen, have told me they have teared up or even wept at certain points of the stories?  I take that as a great compliment.  My characters are mostly giant extraterrestrial termites (called the Shshi) -- bristly, rather stinky bugs with no facial expressions beyond what their antennae can convey and strange habits like eating their primary dung in order to extract all the nutrients and also recycling their dead by eating them and thus conserving the protein.  How can you cry over such repulsive creatures?
       The fact that you can proves that I made them "human" -- I made them relatable to the human  psyche.  I read a SF book once (and frankly I can't remember the name of the book or its author now) that had an extraterrestrial race that was amphibious -- big frog-like creatures that spawned in water.  It was narrated from the point of view of the humans who had made first contact with that race, and I never could feel any relationship to them -- they remained remote and just too "alien."
       I think mine is successful partly because I tell the story from the point of view of the Shshi.  In The Termite Queen the point of view switches between the human anthropological team and the Shshi with whom first contact is being made, but the Ki'shto'ba series is narrated entirely from the Shshi perspective, allowing the reader to delve into their essence.  The reader can identify with creatures who have moral principles (or lack them, or are misguided), who care deeply about each other and the foundations of their way of life, who work together, rejoice when something good happens and grieve over loss.  They live full, realistic lives, which means not everything can always work out the way the reader might like.  That can make the reader say, "Not this character!  How could the author do that to this innocent character?" and that can bring on tears.
       I consider tears of that sort to be genuine emotion, and genuine emotion cannot be characterized as sentimentality.  Just killing off a character does not make me weep -- you've got to care about the character that was killed.  That's why we have "red shirts" -- because we need a surrogate for the main characters in whom we have a lot invested.  I can't give anybody instructions on how to make the reader care -- I'm not much of a teacher of writing skills -- but I seem to have succeeded with everybody who has read the entire Ki'shto'ba series.  Heck, I even succeeded with myself -- if I read some of the painful parts after being away from them for a while, I end up weeping over them every time!

       Why don't you give my books a try and see for yourselves if I succeeded?

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  1. Hi Lorinda - merry festive season to you! I completely agree with what you say here, it applies to both books and films. It's definitely a compliment to the writer if emotions are created in the reader because as you say, it means people care about the characters - if you really care about a character that you are reading about then it should feel like a personal loss if they die, or you should feel their pain if they are going through difficult times. The skill is in creating characters that readers will care about as if they are real people in their lives, the skill isn't in thinking up tragic things to happen.

    I am very sentimental when I read things and watch things - my kids laugh at me about how easily I cry when we're watching TV, and yet, as an example, when we watched Marley and Me which should have been very sentimental, I felt they were trying too hard to play it for the emotion so that it was forced and unnatural, and I really didn't care. We knew the dog was going to die and they torturously dragged it out and in the end I was thinking "Oh die already!" which is not like me at all. There are others that disagree with me of course about that film, but to go back to your original point, I agree, there is nothing wrong with sentimentality, as long as it is something naturally generated through relatable characters that we care about.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Vanessa! I can think of a couple of places in my books where I may have been guilty of dragging a death out too long, but I don't think that's the case in v.5 and 6 of the Ki'shto'ba series. And I wonder if Neil ever teared up at any point of reading The Man Who Found Birds - heh heh.

  2. Your books sound interesting and I agree with you about the need for emotion and caring for a character. --- Suzanne Joshi

    1. I hope you'll decide to give them a try! Best to start with The Termite Queen (both volumes, since it's a 2 vol. novel) since that's where I introduce the Shshi. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I agree with what you written re: the importance of relatable characters when it comes to evoking emotional response (and yes, you're very good at that). The only thing I would add is that sometimes just the beauty of the writer's narrative and/or expository prose can be enough to bring on tears. That has happened to me many times while deeply immersed in another writer's literary creation.

    1. I think you really need to be a poet to achieve that, and so you're the one, Jack, who can lay claim to inducing that kind of emotion, because you're a stylist with a true poetic sensibility. I never considered myself to be much of a poet, although I do think Bu'gan'zei's poems in Labors, v.4-6, turned out pretty successful.