Saturday, July 11, 2020

The Foundational Pursuit of Respect ~ by Carolyn Denman

Winter in Melbourne (Australia) is just as cold, wet and dreary as any other city, and when you combine that with the current pandemic restrictions on travel and social outings, I find myself trawling through Netflix and my Kindle like my life depends on it. I’ve just about run out of the high fantasy, modern sci-fi and nerdy comedies that are my usual go-to genres. The thing is, the more stories I consume, the more I realise that genre is simply a style of clothing for what people call a “human story”. We get comfortable with the clothes we wear, and the clothes our friends tell us are trendy, and eventually, as we mature, we get brave enough to select our own style.

When I was a small child, I used to walk into a library and know exactly which shelf to approach in order to find the sort of book I would enjoy. Standing in front of that one shelf, I would run my eye over the spines to look for the colours and styles that said ‘this book has been written for a little girl’. Next check – did it have an animal on the cover? Bam. That’s my book today. If only I’d been a bit more savvy about the marketing tricks and a bit braver about trying new things, I might just have found a book that wasn’t ‘written for a little girl’ and instead found a book that was written for a heart of adventure, a heart of compassion, a soul looking for a new type of friendship. I may have discovered a heroine bold enough to stretch the limits of her world’s expectations. I might have found the sort of story to make me broaden my perspective and develop more empathy. With enough exposure to those stories, I may even have stopped trying quite so hard to fit into the boxes that I believed would earn me the respect of the other kids at school, and instead put more effort into doing things that would earn self-respect. Now wouldn’t that have been a precious gift?

Now, I’m not saying that judging a book by its cover is a bad thing, or that the marketing styles aren’t there for a reason. As an author published by small press, I understand how important it is to be as honest as possible about what a reader might find inside my books. I simply wish that I’d known then that the best parts of the books that I liked could also be found elsewhere, and been a bit more open-minded about trying new genres. I’d like to say that the compulsory reading we had to do at school helped with that, but unfortunately, those books were all ruined by having to over-analyse them. Or perhaps I was merely unlucky with the books that had been selected for our curriculum.

Then, one day, I noticed a book on our sofa that had a dragon on the cover. My dad had been reading it, and it looked…intriguing. So I read a couple of random pages. I happily blame the rest on my dad, and on Anne McCaffrey, because fantasy stories turned out to be everything I didn’t know I needed.

A friend of mine once mentioned that she finds fantasy stories far too scary. She would much rather stick to ‘real human stories’. It took me a while to get my head around that. Quite frankly, real stories terrify me. I would much rather read about an orphaned goat herder escaping from an unfriendly dragon by having to slip past a mob of salivating zombies, than read about a teenager who has been psychologically abused by his parents and is now having to overcome an eating disorder. I know which story scares me more. The thing is though, that at the heart of it, I suspect my friend and I both enjoy the same foundational aspects. Let me list a few of them:

Fantasy and non-fantasy books both contain ‘human stories’. Even when the characters aren’t human. They feel human to us because their fundamental motivation for everything they do is respect. Both genres have villains who are so desperate to feel respected by others (often confused with being feared by others) that they will sacrifice their own self-respect to get it. Both have protagonists who do exactly the opposite, and will ultimately make the more ethical choice regardless of personal cost. There will nearly always be characters who are flawed by the immaturity of choosing the short-term respect of their peers at the expense of their own long-term self-respect (basically every bad choice I made as a teen). Overcoming those flaws (aka ‘coming of age’) does not only happen in young adult fiction.

All stories have a protagonist who needs to achieve something that seems impossible, and feel proud of it, which in turn makes us feel proud of them. That wholesome pride usually helps them overcome their character flaws, and we love them for that. We love antiheroes for that even more.

Both types of stories will either have a thread of romance or some other close relationship that keeps us reading. And those relationships will be based on the same underlying theme of ego. Every action we ever take is ultimately motivated by gaining respect, and the beautiful thing we call ‘love’ is where one person makes the choice to sacrifice an aspect their own ego to raise up someone else. Break down the climax of any romance and you’ll see what I mean. Putting someone else’s ego above your own (even just symbolically) is what made the guys in all those 80’s movies stand up in public and do something to make himself appear foolish. It’s what made us melt when it was announced that no one puts Baby in a corner. It’s what made Danny Zuko turn up to the last day of school in a letterman sweater. It’s one of the reasons John Snow bent the knee to Daenerys Targaryen (thanks a lot for ruining romance, George). It’s also why we all cried when Aragorn (and everyone else) knelt down to four friendly Hobbits. Oh, wow. I’m tearing up again just remembering that scene… And when that sacrifice is made by both parties in a relationship, well, that is where we find that elusive thing people call ‘depth’.

When you combine all these things into one story, some really cool conflicts show up. What happens when our protagonist has to choose between the good of the people they love most, and the good of society? What if choosing the good of society is what gets them the respect of other people, but somehow dishonours their romantic interest? What if winning that street car race earns respect for their gang/tribe/family, but endangers a bystander? Some rules seem simple. Choosing someone else’s safety above their own gains our respect…until the person they are saving is a villain who goes on to hurt others and they’ve now missed the only chance there was to stop them. That’s okay. As readers we will always empathise with someone taking the moral high ground in order to keep their self-respect intact…unless by doing so they betrayed and disrespected their best friend. See how this works?

These conflicts are the basis of ‘human stories’. They reveal complexities in behaviour that we enjoy untangling. No matter what book cover style grabs our attention, there are three things we can depend on. We will always find ourselves reading one more chapter because we need to know if she finally finds out exactly what he secretly sacrificed for her. We will always feel frustrated by a story if we can’t clearly see the way each choice a character makes is based on earning respect in some form. We will always get attached to a protagonist who chooses the most ethical path despite the cost, and feel vicariously good about ourselves when the protagonist is finally recognised and applauded for doing so.

So, for any writers who may be reading this, have a think about the way each of your characters’ self-respect ebbs and flows, and how that drives their arcs. For readers, when selecting your next book, take note of the parts of a story that hit home for you, and look for those elements, not just the window dressing of book covers or genre marketing. Although dragons always do make superb window dressing…

Thanks for inviting me to join in the Word Play today, Kristine. Enjoy the summer while it’s your turn, tell the sun I miss her, and send her back my way soon, please!

Listen to Carolyn Denman's podcast episode here.

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