Standard disclaimer: This post looks at the text of a short story for educational purposes, and does not shy away from spoilers. If you don’t want the story spoiled. read the original story first.
by Leah Cypress
Asimov’s Science Fiction, February 2015. Available at newstands and online retailers.
I know there is a tendency to make protagonists paragons of good, and antagonists epitomes of evil in stories. We get it from childhood and Grimm’s Household Tales. Then Sondheim comes along and write Into the Woods and we try to understand there has to be more to characters than living on one side of the good/evil divide. We play with anti-heroes, victims of a cruel society who break laws left and right but stick to a moral code.
And then there is Forgiveness, by Leah Cypress.
I have read it twice, looking for answers, and not finding them. I am an idea-driven writer and reader. The philosophical questions behind this story have me spinning. The emotional reaction is much harder to parse. The thinking side is full of idea, argument, and counter argument. The empathetic side is truly muddled.
The main actors in this story are teenagers, which works to the narritive’s advantage because when a teenager does something an adult finds illogical, it can be perfectly logicas to the teenager. They operate by different rules. Their brains aren’t done cooking yet. The immediate response to a reader reaction like “what sane person would do this?” is “teenager.”
The back story is simple: Teenage girl is hurt by her abusive emotionally out of control boyfriend, and he is given a treatment that involves implanting a chip that prevents him from becoming violent. The story is about his return to the school and the girl’s reaction.
And it’s complicated. On one hand, the boy is abusive, and his violent nature is “fixed” by blocking it. The chip doesn’t take away what makes him angry, or from feeling anger, it prevents him from acting on that anger and hurting other people. It makes me question what a just solution to society’s angry men problem could be, because it doesn’t feel like a kind or human solution. It comes across as cruel and unusual. He becomes a victim of the system.
On the other hand, the girl is a victim, too, because nobody deserves to get beaten up. She still loves him, and sees his uncontrolled emotions as part of everything that makes him great. He’s not all asshole, according to her attitude. Maybe. This is where using teenagers helps, because she may be an incredible subtle unreliable narrator, but I am not sure if that’s the right call here. She continues to see him, and a sort-of love triangle game she plays pushes him to a point where he was truly apologetic for hurting her. During the course of the story, he manages to hurt her again. She accepts his apology, but still calls the authorities, to take him away as she realizes that their relationship is broken.
I’m not sure what to feel about this story. It feels like nobody wins, or that she wins but the victory is so Pyhhric in nature it seems like the boy never returning to her life would have been preferable.
The strength in the story is in the ambiguity. Her love triange is presented not as a game she was playing, but as something else happening and complicating her life. Her ownership of the triangle is her point of growth. She could have stopped it at any time, and she didn’t. There are deliberate points in the narrative where she states there are people who could help her, or whom she should call, but she doesn’t. This is where the tension gets raised.
Lesson: Tension occurs when characters don’t do what reader’s expect.
This is probably the most difficult challenges I have with my own writing. My characters are presented with a problem, and their reaction is either completely logical (being the normal reaction) or it appears to be completel random. The former is dull, the second isn’t building tension, but confusion, and as a reader there is nothing worse wondering why characters are doing what they do: It’s a dead body in their bedroom! Why did they, upon finding it, order a pizza?
Cypress’ narrator has those episodes where she doesn’t act. This creates tension for the reader.
Lesson: Characters don’t always know what they are going to do next
This is the story-stopper for me. I have too many stories sitting idly by because I can’t think of the next word, the next action, or the next anything. Chandler, of course, would have someone with a gun kick the door down, and I’ve played that card but there are limits to the number of times I can do this.
A book on scene writing that I keep checking out of the library describes scenes as having physical action and emotional reaction. The character’s reaction is contradictory, and sometimes she freezes up. But thing continue to happen. Things continue to happen because the other characters continue to act.
For me, the impetus is to make sure I have a path for all of my characters.
Exercise: Write a character into a dilemma. Make it hard one. Make at impossible for your character to continue because of the choice they cannot make. Then describe that character’s reaction to the next thing the other major players do in the story. Branch the timeline. Treat each reaction as the next possible action. Choose the best one and keep writing.