I write this sharing my lap desk with a big uncaring white fluff ball named Frankie. He likes to push the keys and sit on top of the computer so we stage laptop wars. So far we are about 50/50. I’m not really the one in authority here.
This week I read a truly incredible book by one of those authors that no one knows but really should be on the lips of everyone. Fallen Crest High by Tijan was a look outside the box in a way that killed the memory of the many formulaic books I have read lately. It bled dysfunction, unlikely alliances, the value of friendships and perceptions. This book was written very well, the characters were engaging and the power struggling and backstabbing feed my hunger for angst and trouble. I have not read any of Tijan’s other books but I did go right to Amazon and downloaded Broken and Screwed and the Jaded series as soon as I finished Fallen Crest High. When a book as good as this comes around it literally rocks your entire world and the impression left by this sort of story demands to be shared with anyone who will listen. I hope you are listening. Tijan’s Facebook page, Tijan’s Books, posts updates of the novels she is in the process of writing. I love authors who are so accessible and generous.
But how does one go about writing broken and ruined characters successfully?
So many authors try so hard to play the broken and tragic tales of one of their characters they meet with defeat. They are so hung up on the triggering event that the symptoms and aftermath get lost in the plot. Or they get so lost in the dark emotions and troubled behavior of a damaged hero or heroine that the ultimate reveal comes across as insignificant. It’s hard to write something real if you have never experienced or witnessed it yourself. Writing fiction about painful and difficult times resulting in horrific personal crises isn’t as simple as making up a tale of woe and prescribing cliched motives and villainous villains to milk a response. You have to actually make your reader feel like they have never felt so much pain, confusion, terror, distress, hopeful hopelessness and vulnerability from a narrative of this type before.
Trauma effects people in different ways but it almost always comes with a desperate anger and a feeling of hollowness or emptiness that removes the victim from the world of all the people around them. The isolation that a troubled person goes through may be of their own making or by being stigmatised as different from others in regards to the incident. Sometimes life is simple. You are made or broken and from that you grow into a stronger person. Most people aren’t really that lucky and pain, anger, helplessness win. That feeling of being other in a broken world can’t be solved with a chat with a therapist or pill. When you can’t talk it out and it just plows through your life the experience can live in your mind playing over and over again. When you come out on the other end it’s incredible. For others, luck doesn’t bless you that way and destroying who you are seems like the only option. When that happens you know you are going down and you no longer care who you bring with you. The injuries you have pull you into your own small world where you hurt so much you fail to see anyone else’s pain. And the feelings you have create a place all it’s own where people have to pay for what has been to you. Even the ones who are innocent.
That is reality. This is how people respond to abuse, tragedy and trauma. Knowing this happens in life makes for great writing. Assuming something like this from TV dramas, thriller movies and other books which address trauma, stress and tragedy isn’t enough. Writing a good story comes from writing what you know.
In fiction of this vein the author is creating a character that has suffered something monumental and that character’s story isn’t necessarily the only one that is being told. Authors say lot about themselves by showing how human nature works in their own minds by what they write. The violation or unjustice, how the world around the victim reacts and what the result of those actions are; All of that is a product of an author’s ability to see the inner turmoil and the greater gift of interaction. Topics such as cancer, suicide, rape, child or domestic abuse, assault, mental illness, family dysfunction, social or unspecified anxiety, and death (this list could really go on into infinity), mold characters just as they mold real people. Knowledge is a powerful thing and authors with knowledge can play God in the written sense.
I have been reading all sorts of books for most of my life and I have probably read thousands of books which have a life lesson contained within the wrappings of personal tragedy. I can remember the first book of this sort that really left a mark on me. A teenage author by the name of Cyn-Forshay Lunsford wrote a book in 1986 called Walk Through Cold Fire. It was a great story of a girl who had a pretty shitty life moving to stay with other family for a summer. The events which occur impact her life in pretty horrible way. As you can see from that Amazon link the book isn’t available in e-book format and it’s out of print. So unless you can find it in a used bookstore, like I did about ten years ago, the likelyhood of you getting to read this great piece of fiction is probably pretty slim.
Still I give the author props because the way she commanded that these characters matter in a world where it didn’t seem that people did was impressive. Walk Through Cold Fire was written with a rawness and truth that left me feeling every one of Desiree’s crushing burdens at the end of the book. I think it was the first book I read that didn’t have a happy ending. It felt real. To my youthful mind fantasy was so much more fun. But as I read and read and read during my pre-teens and teen years, the only book that really sticks out is Cyn-Forshay Lunsford’s. I can’t tell you the plot of too many of the Silhouette Young Adult Books I read. And I can tell you that the only thing I remember from the first couple of Sweet Valley High books is that one of the characters names was Fiona. And I only remember that because from that point on I wanted to change my name to that. I think as a young girl of twelve Walk Through Cold Fire actually changed something in me. It made me see the world differently.
By no means is that the only title that I recommend that would illicit a telling reaction. There are the classic S.E. Hinton books The Outsiders and Rumble fish. Both powerful stories about life on hard times. Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis, which told the tale of a jaded and lost generation in the middle of the 1980’s. The memoir of Susanna Keyson, Girl Interrupted, which I remember made me fear the possibility of something similar happening to me. All those were published before a time that really is remembered by the younger readers who are reading now. I don’t think they can relate with the times or culture before 2000, which is just unfortunate because the message that was being made at that particular times of those novels spoke volumes.
Of current books that I have read this past year, my tastes have run the gamut from terminal illness to incest and almost everything in between. Some to mention would be Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma, a book set in Great Britain about a truly broken family in which a brother and sister find themselves in a taboo relationship. The Fault in Our Stars by the incredible John Green. His book is being adapted into a movie. If the film impacts viewers half as much as the book did me no one will leave that theater with a dry eye.
A very dark and disturbing view into sex trafficking with the Dark Duet books by C.J. Roberts will leave you wondering how the hell something like this exists. Incredible and frightening. Jeffery Euginedes debut novel The Virgin Suicides was a little of everything. You know, I laughed, I cried, I read it multiple times. Nicole Reed’s Ruining Series was a road through a dark hell of a young girl just plagued with trauma and tragedy. Colleen Hoover hit on some very touchy subjects in Hopeless. Honestly the end of her book left me a bit shocked, Sky’s reunion with her father was so disquieting and I remember the pivotal part where I just shook my head and said, “What in hell did I just read?”. Jessica Sorensen left me speechless with her book The Coincidence of Callie and Kayden. The violation of Callie was just beyond what one would assume and Kayden’s family life was sickening but so often reality. Just the idea that they could get past their issues in any small way made this book pure gold. And I can’t forget Alice Sebold with her compelling story The Lovely Bones. I had read her memoir which told of her own rape and fight for justice in Lucky. She is a strong woman for making it through that. And writing what happened one time was a lot to admire, writing the horror a second time takes fortitude and courage.
I recommend every book that I have mentioned above. Read them once for me and then again for you. It takes a special author to develop stories that stage horrific and hopeless events in a way that pulls you out of your comfort zone but allows you to think that somewhere in all that hell something more might exist. Sometimes the ending is vicious and as a reader, even you feel violated. Personally, I see that as a great accomplishment on the writer’s behalf. I have always been fond of saying, “good or bad, at least you aren’t indifferent.” Give me a story that makes my heart hurt, my gut wrench and my mind feel like I just survived something most people can’t live through.
I congratulate the authors who attempt and succeed to touch on issues that make readers ill at ease. Sometimes you need to be shaken up. Life isn’t just hot guys and girls, living haphazardly, and fighting with parents, siblings and best pals. Sometimes living is hard. And surviving is near impossible. There is crime, hate, impossible odds, terror, heartbreak, pain and shame that make it so hard to breathe that you just suffocate on the thought of the next moment. Awful and alarming things happen to people you know all the time. Maybe they don’t talk about it. Maybe they can’t. Books that pull you away from your own safety, leading you through someone else’s bottomless pit, give you a better sense of humanity. Sometimes having your world flip upside down can make everything around you mean a little more.
Thanks for reading this.
Edited because I mistyped Jessica Sorensen’s name as Jennifer. My apologies.