Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Rest of the Story

Here’s the deal on the post I made a couple days ago on sympathetic versus unsympathetic characters. In my story, I had a woman whose son was kidnapped at age 10 by a pedophile and returned four years later, and whose son then runs away from home at age 15, leaving a note for his parents to say that "I'm sorry, but I just can't stay here. Don't worry." In the story, the woman tries to contact him through his cell phone, calls the police, checks with his friends (although he doesn’t have many since his return), goes on TV, where pictures and contact information are posted, hires a private detective, and then drives around for almost four days looking for him in places she’s sure he won’t be in. But she just has to “Do” something. She has her cell phone with her constantly and knows that her son knows her number. After four tearful and nearly sleepless days, she ends up at the home of a man whose son was murdered by the same molester. (This is about a week after her son has run away.)

Here’s where the controversy came in. In my story, I had the woman tell the man that she wants to kill the molester who has so damaged her son, and that she wants him (the guy who lost his son) to help. I thought that all this actually made my female character into a sympathetic character. However, most members of my writing group disagreed. Their major points, as I understand them, are:

1. A mother would not turn her mind to revenge when her son is still “out there” somewhere, lost and in need of help. Her only concern at the time would be to “find her son.” Thinking and seeking revenge at this time makes the women unsympathetic.

2. The woman is also made unsympathetic, (and weak), because she is trying to “manipulate” (their word) the man who lost his son into helping her.

I can agree that seeking the “help” of the man weakens the female character, although I also thought it would be a “realistic” response. It never occurred to me that the woman was trying to manipulate the man, only that she was seeking aid and comfort from someone who she thought would “understand her pain.” Also, knowing the rule that characters must ‘act’ to be sympathetic, I didn’t want to leave the woman sitting at home waiting for things to happen.

Point number 1 is the most confusing to me, and through further discussion in our group it seems that we are looking at some differences between men and women here, especially for women who are mothers. My female character reacts more like a male than a female, it seems. All in all, it’s led to some wide ranging and interesting discussion about what men and women expect from characters of the same gender, and of the opposite gender. It seems we’ve got a long way to go to understand each other.


Dave Hardy said...

Hmmm, maybe it would read differently if there were no hope for her son.

I could see a mother racting with a desire for revenge if she had suffered an irrevocable loss. I think women tend to avoid inter-personal violence more than men (the corolary is that society and testosterone work together to produce male violence). But, under the right circumstances, they would act violently.

I'm pretty sure that women don't have too many problems with endorsing violence in the abstract. I've had my share of death-penalty debates with women advocates of the ultimate penalty. Some of 'em had their own .357s on hand just in case a child-molester or rapist crossed their path!

Steve Malley said...

I'd have the son commit suicide at 15. We know why. Then you've got a bleak and red-eyed mum with the taste of ashes in her mouth. Well meaning friends offer hollow consolations, but they don't know.

When the other parent finds her on his doorstep, we'll all know why she's there.

Of course, if your story involves the prodigal's return, that does kind of put a stick in the spokes...

Susan Miller said...

I would stick with this and still consider her sympathetic at this point. Not having gone through the situation I would think that by day 5 there would be some anger. Not that I wouldn't keep just may help me to feel better by wrapping my hands around the throat of the child molester. No, it wouldn't..but I would want to, and it would pass some down time as I'm waiting for my cell phone to ring and coming up with the next trying to find him idea.

Manipulation? No. Teaming together for a cause, I think.

I'd stick with her on this one as long as she is searching or fighting for her son.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Depending on how horrific the trauma is to the mother, I still feel seeking revenge and the help from a man is a viable option. It's all in how the characters are presented.

Sienna said...

I am female: Absolutely no doubt my focus would be on finding my son (and wellbeing of any other children I had).

My son's whereabouts and safety would be paramount...but how come the perpetrator/paedophile isn't in jail?

If my son had been killed, and there were no other children, no, this is hard to say, hypothetical is difficult, maybe 50/50 chance of dealing with it all, as opposed to hunt him down and kill him...however long it took.

It's so difficult, maybe "feel" like hunting him down initially...maybe that is the thought impulse I can identify first...

Interesting work Razored...but definitely find my son (the kids) first.. no matter what.


Sidney said...

Is there another way to get to the same "ends" without her asking the guy to do it? Could the bad guy have some information that could make the guy go after him on her behalf? Maybe he could find something on the bad guy's web page that leads him to believe he knows something? Then the confrontation leads to the guy's death? Makes it a different story, I guess.

It occurs to me film noir and crime fiction of the James M. Cain variety have lived and breathed bad female characters getting men to do bad things.

It's early in the a.m., just typing stream of consciousness.

Charles Gramlich said...

Thanks for the feedback. Sienna, I appreciate you dropping by with your female perspective. The criticisms have suggested a bit of a twist to me so I think I'm going to develop it that way and look for another possible female character to be sympathetic. There are ways as some suggest to save it as is, but the twist is seeming more fun to me at the moment.

Dave Hardy said...

Perhaps the mother absolutely beleives (based on evidence, spiritual means, moral certainty, semantics, whatever...) that her son is dead. In the course of the story that may well prove to be a mistaken assumption, but you still have a basis for her actions.

Steve Malley said...

Oh, another idea: expand the timeline.

The kid's gone for say, five years, he can still be alive out there, but mum might well have had *plenty* of time for the rage to build to that cold and killing point.

I like this idea of trying to get a sympathetic character to do such an on-the-face-of-it unsympathetic thing. Don't give up!

Erik Donald France said...

Either way, I like it. She can be vocalizing for help while simultaneously thinking revenge. A new twist sounds compelling, too.

As is, I don't see trying to get the other guy to help as manipulation.

Michelle's Spell said...


I don't think the mother seems unsympathetic at all. It's hard to imagine what four years of loss could do to a person's mind. I think you've created a fascinating situation -- sympathetic or not, who cares? What happens next? Sounds very exciting!