Friday, October 26, 2012

No such thing as monsters

Derrick bought Men in Black for Sylvia to watch. You know, Sylvia, my four-year-old, with the newly active imagination and lack of understanding of fiction?

So, of course, she's having trouble getting to sleep.

My daughter loves watching TV, so I may be reading too much into this, but even though she was scared by the aliens, Sylvia wouldn't stop watching the show. She was worried about the people, worried about who was good and who was bad, worried that people and aliens were going to die.

Little kids are an easy audience (which is obvious if you ever watch a kid's show or, even worse, go back and watch a kid's show from your childhood. Ugh). Even so, that's the reaction I want from my readers. I want them to care about the people in the story, to worry that they're going to get hurt or die. I want them to wonder who is evil and who is good. Those things are harder to accomplish with adults than with kids, but the basic principle is still the same.

Sylvia cared most about the characters who looked most human to her.

The aliens, especially the more monstrous looking, were much less sympathetic to her. Likewise, I care most about characters who feel real, who have realistic attitudes and reactions, rather than about caricatures or people who react in an alien way. As an adult the physical form of my character is less important than the way they're reacting to their situation or to the other characters around them. David Brin writes all kinds of aliens who are very human in their emotions and interactions, and that makes them effective, sympathetic characters. The people who I see as good are going to be those who make good choices, who build up the people around them, who stick to their principles in the face of difficultly. The stories that I find most interesting, though, are the ones were those same sources of good and of strength get twisted in a way that takes a good character into bad territory, or where the bad character is bad because of an extreme adherence to a good trait.

As an example from history, in Nazi Germany most members of the LDS church used the 12th article of faith as an excuse to not stand up against Hitler. Helmuth Huebener, Rudi Wobbe, and Karl Heinz were three teen-age boys who dared to criticize the Nazi regime and they were not supported by their local church authorities. Huebener and his friends recognized there were more important freedoms and rights (like, say, life) that were being infringed upon and they chose to take action, even though it cost them dearly. We now see the actions of the other people in their congregation as at best apathetic, and at worst monstrous. It's that kind of decision--to hold to a good principle in the wrong situation--that I think makes the most interesting, and the most terrible monsters. 

The kind of monster all of us can imagine becoming.

After way too much discussion of why aliens wouldn't really come to Earth, I finally told Sylvia aliens were made up. That, finally, was the explanation she needed to hear to go to sleep. I don't think it's time yet for a discussion of what makes a person into a monster.

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