Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Are We Done With The "Family in The Fridge" Trope Yet?

For those of you who haven't read much of my fiction, I love dark stories. I love the tension that comes when you don't know if the lead is really going to pull through, and I love that moment of shocked catharsis when the rope snaps, and the bridge drops out from under me. Those are the kinds of stories I read, and it's often the kind of stories I write.

If you don't believe me, check out my latest release!
With that said, I would like to address something that I think has become a problem for those trying to create gritty, edgy fiction. The problem, as I see it, is that authors are much too quick to resort to murder as a method of character development. Worse, all of this bloodletting is happening off-screen somewhere. Worst, though, is that it often serves the dual function of making sure the writer doesn't have to put that much thought into their protagonist's relationships.

Before you continue, note that this is a complaint regarding character backgrounds. If family, friends, lovers, etc. whom we have established and who are part of the story die on-screen deaths, that is a totally separate issue.

The Family in The Fridge

When we conceive of a character, we usually see the broad sweeps first. For example, the grizzled detective, or the won't-take-no-for-an-answer reporter. Then we fill out the details, inject personality, and we realize them as complete people. The problem is, too often, we realize them in a vacuum. We just put in all the hard work creating one person, and the idea of going through the web of that character's connections to family, friends, and others just seems like so much additional work. So we start looking for reasons not to do it.

Now, I'm not saying that every character you create needs to come from a loving home, with a huge network of siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and extended familial connections. What I am saying is that people need support networks, and family tends to figure into them somehow. If that isn't the case for your character, you need to have an explanation for why that is.

These explanations don't have to eat up a lot of word count, either. For example, your grizzled detective has been divorced twice, and has two kids, neither of whom much like him. That one sentence conveys the fact that he has tried, and failed, to maintain a steady romantic relationship, and that parenting isn't something he's really good at. Alternatively, our reporter might have been raised by a single mother, and raised poorly, so the two of them aren't on speaking terms. Again, this one sentence fills in a lot of gaps, and allows our brains to move on with the rest of the story.

These facts are Spackle in your story; meant to fill in the cracks. Because no one person is an island, you have to tell us why there are gaps when it comes to the important people in our lead's life. You don't put glitter in your Spackle, because that just draws attention to something you're trying to camouflage. Killing your character's entire family, or just portions of it, is like putting glitter in your Spackle, and then shining a light on it to draw extra attention.

There are some things you don't want your readers to notice.
Having dead family members is a tried-and-true method of creating pathos, but it's often like using a sledgehammer to put in roofing nails. And the sexier the death, the bigger the hammer you're swinging around.

Let's go back to our previous example. Now, instead of being divorced, our cop's first wife died in a car wreck, and his second of cancer. An accident and a disease; nothing he could do. More importantly, though, they're pedestrian causes of death. He lost someone he cared about, and the death drove a wedge between him and his kids. Especially if he turned to the job as a way to find his center, and to keep going past his grief. It's sad, but it's the kind of street-level sadness that happens all the time. It doesn't make our detective stand out as special. Tragic, but not special.

But what if we spiced up that death? Let's say that his wife and kids were kidnapped by organized crime, and held in a hostage situation. He tried to save them, but they killed his wife, and crippled his children before he could bring them down. They still have that same mixed bag of grief, regret, and resentment, but because we brought in men with guns as a way to make things grimmer and darker, we've also put a strain on our reader's belief.

Could that happen? Sure, it's within the realm of possibility. But why are you choosing that particular hammer? Why is it necessary to your story?

Don't Scream When a Whisper Will Do The Job

Have you ever watched a fencing match? You can always tell the amateurs because their movements are big and sweeping. Every attack is a full-body lunge, and every block is a swing of the sword you could see from the third row. If you watch experienced fencers, though, you'll notice their movements are much more controlled. A truly accomplished swordsman can block simply by shifting his blade a few inches, and changing the way he stands. Fights between two experts can be over in moments, and often with no more than a few steps and subtle movements.

Writing a book is a lot like fencing. You're trying to get the measure of your reader, and to distract them with feints so they never see your real killing blow coming. To do that, though, you need to draw them in. Make them follow your lead. The best way to do that is to save the flash and splash for when you really need it.

Otherwise you come a step closer to the Family in The Fridge singularity.
If you've decided your protagonist's parents, siblings, children, significant others, etc. all have to die, take a moment to examine that decision. Why is that necessary? What does your story gain by throwing one more character on the slab, especially if they were buried before your book even starts? If there is no reason except that bringing the hammer down on those connections was your first instinct, or because it was simply easier, re-examine that choice until you have a better reason.

Also, if you liked this week's post, you might also be interested in The Disposable Woman: A Trope That Really Needs to Go as well as Are "Tortured Souls" Really Just Stunted Characters? 

As always, thanks for stopping in to see what advice I'm dispensing this week. If you'd like to help support this blog, and my work in general, why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? For as little as $1 a month, I can keep the doors open and the content flowing. Also, if you haven't yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

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