Wednesday, December 14, 2011

In Search of the WHY

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!


  1. I haven't read this book, although it sounds intriguing. I find that books with main characters who are marginally unlikable often make for interesting reads ... as long as you don't get turned off by them so much you don't care to continue.

    That said, it's a risky venture. I have a critique partner who is currently making revisions on a manuscript because an agent said the mc was too unlikable and wanted a R&R.

    Your post suggests to me a possible reason why the agent might be struggling to like this character: Maybe there's not a good enough reason WHY for the reader to forgive her.

    I'll send her the link!

  2. WHY has been ingrained in me since I was a child following my mother around the house, responding to her attempts to answer my many questions with "why". When I create character outlines I write that at the bottom of every page. If the reader is confused about a characters motivations...then your manuscript is doomed to obscurity. :)

  3. The 'why' is vital for the reader to understand when sympathizing with an unlikable character. For me a a writer, the most challenging thing is to not portray the 'whys' in cliches. I'd like to read this book to see how the author avoided them while writing an authentic story about disadvantaged kids. So often, the cliches are true, and uncovering them with a balance between rawness and fresh creativity can be tough.

    Thank for the follow on my blog! Looking forward to reading more from you.

  4. Wow, great post Sarah. I agree with everything - especially about how it's much easier to identify with a character, who on the surface appears mean or unsympathetic, if you understand their reality or their motivations. I do think there's a line though. There are some things you can't excuse and some characters that it's okay never to like. That doesn't make the book a write-off for me - it just makes it different.

  5. I've added this book to my list. I don't have to like a character, but I do have to care, and knowing 'why' is what makes me care.

  6. Great post, Sarah. This is why backstory is really important, and why we have to know these things before we write the first draft. But it takes skill to make an unlikeable character someone you want to keep reading about.

    DL is onto something. Maybe we need to revert back to our preschooler self and keep asking WHY on every page we write.

    I love Julie's post. :D

  7. The problem with focusing on the "Why" is that knowing the why doesn't make the punches hurt less or the fires burn cooler. It doesn't unkill the animals they hurt or unbreak the bones. Focusing on the why of the person inflicting pain and damage may help that person, but more often all it does is lessen the importance of the people they hurt, as though it's alright to do these things if you've got a good reason.

    There is no why that justifies any of that. Not grief, not rape, not abuse. It is never okay to transfer your pain to someone else, and that's exactly what "sympathetic" stories encourage.

  8. I haven't read this book, but I think I might add it to my list. Feeling for a character makes me want to continue learning their story, and understanding why they behave a certain way makes me feel for them.

  9. Anonymous, first, it's safe here, I promise--you don't have to be anonymous!

    But second, I'm afraid I must disagree with your assertions. Understanding the why IN NO WAY negates what a person does, and IN NO WAY negates the need for consequences for wrong-doing. That's a common misperception when people talk about this stuff. Understanding why only makes us more enlightened in our approach, wiser, less knee-jerk reactive, and more likely to be able to prevent wrong-doing in the future. Discarding people, dismissing them as humans because they've done wrong ... that's not a society I want to be a part of. HOWEVER, again, what I'm saying does not get in the way of issuing punishment for crimes. I never said it was "okay to transfer your pain to someone else," only that it happens, and the people who are hurt often become perpetrators of pain themselves. And the only way to stop that is to think about the cycle and understand it as one means of bringing it to an end. I wish it was easier ... but it's not. Thanks for your comment!

  10. interesting post and comments.

    i think compassion leads to caring discipline.

    lack of discipline is neglect- which is hateful and abusive- and rooted in lack of compassion.

    i think it is impossible to effectively address undesirable behaviour without understanding why.

    and understanding doesn't erase anything.

    and understanding is painful.

    and understanding makes us human.

    and understanding reminds us that the other person is human.

    and so are their victims.

  11. This books sounds like a must read for everyone. Too many times people focus not on the why, but on what can be done? I've found that focusing on the real disorder, not the symptoms, helps to understand why.

  12. Sounds like a very powerful read.

  13. Two kinds of why. One in the head, other in the heart. Tis why they still do it even though head's on straight. Can't necessarily fight feeling with thought, but can fight it with feeling thought -- other emotions. Heart is very, very fast. Can't fight what can't be caught. Slow it down, way down to see, to give time for new feeling to confront old pattern.

  14. I used to teach inner city high school. This sounds very familiar and sounds like a book that should be recommended to all inner city teachers. John McWhorter has written several telling nonfiction books that would probably mesh well with this one.

  15. Terrific post, as always! I'll definitely read this book. Thanks for the recommendation.

  16. As long as there's hope in the end, I can work through an issue book. I'm going to recommend this to someone I know. Thanks!

  17. EXCELLENT! No I have not, but now it's on my radar (thank you). Oh and same with my teaching experience, Darryl!

  18. This sounds so good. I can see why it might make your head hurt, but to get to the truth behind people's behaviors is so fascinating.

  19. hi miss sarah! i didnt ever think about the why for my characters maybe cause i didnt ever do a character that not likeable. im gonna try that some time. for that book im gonna tell one of my brothers about it cause i think he could like it and it could help him in his job.
    ...hugs from lenny

  20. Admittedly, I think I probably (usually) avoid books like this. Not because I won't get it, not because I won't like the characters, not because my heart is made of steel. I avoid because the opposite of all these things is my reality. Because I work with kids everyday (also as a school psychologist) books like this hit too close to home, stay with me just a little too long, and tear my heart a lot too deep. There was once a time in my life in which I would have gobbled a book like this up and then gone looking for more.

    But not lately.

    I admitted to a colleague earlier today, after he shared a particularly sad story with me, that I have found it necessary to shut down certain emotional receivers when working with some families, some children. I think of it as slipping into the role of professional empathizer. Because I care, too much, but if I start sobbing while I'm supposed to be helping, well, that tends to be less than helpful.

    This book sounds beautiful, true, heart wrenching...all the reasons I won't read it anytime soon.

  21. I've heard about this book before, but I don't think I put it on my to-read list. I will now. I love books with strong characters whom I care about. This sounds like one of those types. Thanks!

  22. Sounds like a book I have to read. I completely agree with you here. When it comes to characters, one of the best ways to make difficult characters likeable is to make sure the reader understands why they are the way they are...

    Good post. :-)

  23. Well said. A bad guy is never really a bad guy in his own mind, nor a hero a hero.

  24. I'm a cash aid eligibility worker (always thought I'd end up in CPS actually) so I totally get the "why do/don't they" sentiment.

    I just smile when people ask why I go home and play solitaire on the computer. "Its so mindless" they say. Yep.

    This sounds like a cool book to read. And thanks for the links to the other blogs :)