On Monday, you guys made some extremely thoughtful comments in response to my post about cyclothymia, and specifically, about whether a person's disclosure of a mental illness affected how you thought about the person's behavior.
Also on Monday, Julie Musil guest-posted on unlikeable characters over at Lisa Gail Green's blog . She gave a thoroughly excellent analysis about how to help readers sympathize with a character who on the surface appears entirely unsympathetic, and her primary suggestion was to help the readers understand WHY the character had become the way he/she was. If you haven't read this post, you should!
Now, I deal in the business of understanding why. Pondering the why is what keeps helping professionals from something called client-blaming. Client blaming ... is sucky. However, it happens with stunning frequency. A client engages in the exact behavior he/she sought help for, and we're like, "ARGH. Why doesn't he just [insert whatever you've told him/her to do here]?!?" And then we get mad. We get frustrated. We want to give up.
When I get a whiff of this kind of sentiment, either from my supervisees or inside my own head, I know it's time to get back to the drawing board. And I know exactly what I need to do: I need to dig a little deeper and get to the WHY. It's the only way I'll be helpful, the only way I'll be able to provide the kind of help my client deserves.
Amazingly, also on Monday, I READ A BOOK THAT CAPTURES THIS PERFECTLY. And by "this", I mean the why of it. It's Julie Musil's post come to life. For anyone trying to write a potentially unsympathetic, seriously flawed, at-risk-for-being-unlikeable character, this book is a must read. Oh, and for the rest of you, too. It's so very good.
Something Like Hope, by Shawn Goodman (who happens to be a school psychologist), is about seventeen-year-old Shavonne, who resides in a juvenile detention center and is at high risk for not having much of a future. This lean little book is about how she decides how she's going to live.
The book begins with Shavonne in an isolation room after she's busted the face of one of the guards--one who's stuck by Shavonne and clearly cared about her. Maybe I should mention that Shavonne does this after stealing the lady's sandwich and lying about it. Shavonne then tells her new, kind, and well-meaning therapist to eff-off and screams her way out of the therapy session.
Yeah, she does.
Shawn Goodman manages a very difficult task here. Despite Shavonne's hostile behavior, it's not difficult at all to care about her, like her, worry for her, or emotionally invest in her.
Because this book is relentlessly focused on the why.
Many of the characters in Something Like Hope are kids NO ONE likes (and who most people fear). These kids do bad things. These are kids no one wants to "excuse." They've hurt people, and stolen things, and broken things, and messed stuff up. And frankly, they're likely to do it again if pushed the wrong way. Or maybe, even if they're not.
And yet, in simple, clean prose, Mr. Goodman gets inside Shavonne's head, shows us what she's been through, what ALL the girls in that place have been through, what they're dealing with now, why it's so hard to hold it together. Without wiping away the things they've done or glossing over their jagged edges, he shows us the why. He shows us where they came from, what was taken from them ... and what was never given to them in the first place.
I read this book in one afternoon and was grateful to have a box of tissues nearby. It made my heart hurt, but it also made me so happy. Shavonne's story is beautiful in a terrifyingly fragile way. I've known kids like this in real life, and I know that if I really understood the why, it would read like Something Like Hope.
Have you read this book? Can you recommend others that focus on the WHY? Do you ponder the why of characters' behaviors in the books you read (or write)? How about in real life?
For the Sisterhood of the Traveling blog this month, Lydia asked: “What formal writing experience do you have? (classes, degrees, major/minors). Did it shape your writing?Have you ever considered getting an MFA?” She answers it today on her blog. Laura gave her answer last week, and I'll give mine next week!