I recently workshopped a story in which, apparently, the protagonist was depressed. At least, that’s what all my classmates said. Their comments mainly consisted of wanting to know what she was like when she wasn’t depressed, what she was doing in response to her depression, and how other people react to her depression. The main thing they said was that she was depressed.
I didn’t write her to be depressed. I merely wrote her to be unhappy. It wasn’t something I thought a lot about, but the point of the story was to show a woman who was unhappy with where she chose to live because the people she met there, not because of the place. I didn’t mean for it to be the story of her spiral into depression.
Obviously, part of this is my fault as a writer. I need to show more of her when she is not unhappy so that the reader isn’t constantly barraged with her sadness. But I think there is also something at work here that settles squarely on the reader’s shoulders, and that is the exaggeration of emotions in fiction.
Let’s say you’re reading a story, and toward the beginning, a young man meets a young woman. How many of you instantly assume that by the end of the story, they’re going to be in some way romantically involved? (I know I do.) What about when at the beginning of a novel, a husband admits to having issues with his wife? Don’t we all expect by the end to have at least broached the subject of divorce?
As readers, we are primed to stories from the very beginning of our lives, so we know a little bit about what to expect. We know that what is at stake at the beginning will become more endangered by the end, and we know that more often than not, they end up at the extremes. As Chekhov said, if a gun is introduced in Act I, it will go off in Act III.
Even small cues can lead to huge assumptions on a reader’s part. In a few different stories, I have given a character sympathetic to the protagonist some sort of less-than-pretty feature (like a big nose or hairy hands), and unfailingly, when I describe that feature, my beta readers circle it and say something like “this makes me wonder if I should like the character or not.” Their reaction doesn’t come from superficialism but from the tradition of giving good guys the good features and bad guys the bad features. After all, a reader is not in the world of the book; they only get what the writer filters for them. So a reader must trust that everything filtered is a cue to interpretation.
This leads to problems for writers, like me, who don’t want to go to the extremes of emotions or want romantic leads to have crooked ears. How can I write a story about unhappiness without the stakes being so high that it is depression? I do believe I can do it, but I think it will take very careful consideration of which cues I give the reader. And there might have to be something else to raise the stakes so that the story is not just about her emotion.
A related issue is letting your readers see something in your work you didn’t mean to put in there, which Veronica Roth talked about this week.