Let me help you

Or Are We Becooming Kinder to our Heroines?

There’s nothing that rachets up the pressure and tension in a novel than an evil secondary character. Just when the reader thinks the poor star of the show has suffered enough, she goes home and there is a wicked stepmother or an evil husband or nasty children waiting for her. Will she ever get any peace or relief? But I’ve noticed a trend. A tiny one. And not very scientifically observed I grant you but something unexpected nonetheless. And one that has made me stop and think. Secondary characters seem to becoming nicer. Normal, kind people who want to help our heroine in the way that us ordinary folk in real life are generally willing to be supportive and helpful to those we care about.

I first noticed it some years ago in Juno, the film about the teenager who became pregnant and sought out a couple to adopt her baby.  I braced myself for shouting scenes with disgraced and horrified parents in the kitchen etc etc but in fact her dad and stepmum (yes a stepmum and they are never, never nice ever in any sort of literature) were lovely people.  That was a one off for a while but then I sat down to read Elizabeth is Missing, a novel about an elderly lady suffering from dementia.  Ripe for fed up children desperate to dump her in a home or neglect her because she is just too difficult.  But in fact the daughter was lovely.  Worked so hard to help her mum and give her the  best care, like most of us would with our own mums. Even the grand daughter was funny and kind.  Happy to step in and help with her grandmother.  Not a teenage strop in sight.  And as I was reading, it struck me how much more believeable this scenario was.  It felt like this could easily happen to me, as my daughters and I would be horrified that my mum was suffering in any way and would do our utmost to help her.

I spotted it on a TV show too.  Catastrophe with Sharon Horgan was hilarious.  A single woman enjoys a fling over a few days with a visiting American.  Once he leaves she finds out she is pregnant.  He returns and they try and make the relationship work.  That has got to be prime conflict drama.  Lots of shouting, maybe a few things thrown.  Two people who don’t know each other trying to get along.  But that word lovely again.  The drama came from their situation and they seemed to genuinely like each other and were trying to be understanding and considerate.  (spoiler alert) When they finally had a shouting match in the final episode it felt all wrong.

Story telling is all about drama, showing our hero overcoming a series of ever increasing obstacles preventing her from achieving her goals.  But if to be convincing you have to make these obstacles believeable then surely that rule applies to all the characters in the story too? Is it too easy to introduce drama by setting your story in an environment populated by horrible people?  If we each took the heros of our story and made the secondary characters ie their friends and family, nice people as most of us are in real life, would that make us as writers dig deeper to find other areas of conflict?  Would that make a better drama?  A more convincing one?

Certainly, these reflections of true life made those art works feel so much more real for me and sucked me deeper into the story.  It also gave the hero space to focus on the real obstacles they were trying to overcome.  Just something to think about. But I am not ashamed to say I can’t bear a lot of shouting in the living room within the pages of a novel.


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