Monday, June 21, 2010

Interfering Characters

Maternite-Nicolas Tarkhoff On Saturday, I took my children to see The Karate Kid to escape the relentless heat we’ve been having in North Carolina.

I was 13 when the original movie came out, but this movie seemed different—and better—than my memory of the original. I think it was also a lot more intense…there were several scenes of Dre being bullied that made me wince.

The mother in the movie was an interesting character. She’d never have allowed her son to be bullied—if she’d known about it. The character clearly loved her child…but was busy with a new job, new country, new customs, etc. I thought the writers and director had a tough job—show the mother as loving and supportive, but ultimately keep her distant to allow her son to run into trouble.

It seemed to me that the screenwriter accomplished this by making the mother ineffective in a plausible way:
She’d just moved to a foreign country.
She was trying to learn the language, currency, and her new job.
She was busy enough not to be perceptive.

I’ll admit I’m on top of my kids all the time—I know where they are, who they’re with, how long they’ll be there…and they’re not allowed to go wandering around the neighborhood by themselves.

Any movie based on my children would be extremely boring.

But this mother moved to China, where her son spoke not a word of the language, and let him roam around the neighborhood at all hours. Once there was a text on his phone from his mom that he needed to come home—that was pretty much it for supervision. She also let him spend entire days with a maintenance man who was a stranger to her…someone she knew nothing about.

If she hadn’t kept this distance from her child, if she’d demanded to know why Dre had a black eye when he clearly lied and said he’d run into a pole, the plot couldn’t have moved forward. He’d never have encountered the bully that made him take up kung fu. He’d never have learned martial arts from the strange man. The whole plot could never have taken place.

This kind of character is very prevalent in YA literature—as are dead parents. :) Parents are notorious for interfering. But then I started thinking about my own books. Both of my protagonists are widows. Why? Because they’re older ladies and I didn’t want their husbands being over-protective and interfering if they wanted to track down killers. My Myrtle Clover character has an interfering son, but since he’s not in the same house, he can’t shut her down as effectively—she can bypass him.

Some interfering characters are important—the antagonist, obviously, is there to provide conflict for our characters and propel the plot forward.

But characters who hold our protagonists back? I’m thinking most of us avoid writing them unless we’re writing a story where our character breaks away from these people (Harry Potter escaping his awful aunt and uncle comes to mind.)

How about you? Do you have a character that holds your character back? How do you handle it?


Kathleen Ernst said...

Sometimes a character trying to hold a protagonist back can provide great tension, and that tension can reveal aspects of both character's personalities.

Re YA, you're right - one of the common lines in any YA critique group is "Kill the parents!" You've got to find a plausible way to let the kids take charge.

Which is actually similar to the situation with amateur sleuths....

Deborah Sharp said...

I knew as soon as I started reading this post it was you,Elizabeth. Your posts are always so thoughtful. In my books, Mama holds her middle (adult, protag) daughter Mace back ... but it's mainly through embarrassing her and driving her crazy, so not exactly the usual parental supervision. Hmmmm, I'll have to think about that. Maybe I need a timid friend to say: "Mace, do not jump in that pond with the alligator!''

G.M. Malliet said...

If anything, my characters might hold themselves back: self-doubt and so on.

I can't think of many stories for children where the parents play a role, other than conveniently vanishing.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

When I first married off my Odelia Grey character to her beau Greg, a lot other writers told me I was taking a very big risk. How do you sleuth with a husband hovering nearby? But so far it has worked out great. Greg has become just as interested in the murders as Odelia, so even though she is the main sleuth, he's often along for the ride. He's adopted the if you can't beat 'em, join 'em attitude, but he's still more interested in keeping her alive.

Darrell James said...

Very thoughtful post, Elizabeth. Without giving too much away in advance, I have a character who serves as something of a surrogate father-figure who is constatly holding my female protagonist back (unsuccessfully, I might add) wanting to protect her and keep her from harm. I think characters like these arise somewhat instinctively with writers in our efforts to create conflict.

Darrell James said...

It occurred to me that these "hold-back" characters can come in a lot of shapes and forms. In the Sopranos HBO series, since the wife lived in a state of denial, the psychologist Malfi(?) seemed to take up this role, providing (or attempting to provide) something of a conscience for Tony Soprano.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Kathleen--Good point--if the interference is used to create friction and conflict for the protagonist to overcome, then it's definitely worth it.

"Kill the parents"--too funny! It does make sense, though. And sometimes my kids may agree with that sentiment, too... :)

Deb--I like Mama's methods. :) I wonder what Mace would do if her timid friend tried holding her back. It would be interesting to see!

G.M.--There are so MANY vanishing parents in these's really amazing. And dates all the way back to fairy tales. I guess even back then parents interfered.

Sue Ann--So Greg is mainly supportive, but can also be the voice of reason if Odelia is getting a little too close to danger for his comfort. I think that's a nice balance.

Darrell--They definitely create some tension for the character, don't they? And then the character has an opportunity to overcome the obstacles the interfering friend or relative creates. And great example--the psychologist is trying to throw up some roadblocks for Tony's violent lifestyle.