Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Empathy Works Against Comedy

I'm working on the revisions for Lord Lightning and in the process I'm getting a bit more insight into what distinguishes comedy from drama.

It turns out to have a lot to do with how much insight the author gives us into the characters' motivations.

Take for example Austen's brilliantly funny character Lady Catherine De Burgh. All Austen shows us about her is what we would see observing her from the outside: what she says and how she treats people. These become very funny at times, for example when she meddles in Charlotte's housekeeping, or explains that her daughter would have been a wonderful pianist if she had only taken up the instrument. And of course she's extremely comic when she confronts Elizabeth and insists that her engagement is impossible since Darcy is engaged to her daughter, leading Elizabeth to ask why, if it is impossible Lady Catherine has made a long journey to demand she give up that very same engagement.

But look what happens if we take the identical character and tell the same story writing from deep within Lady Catherine's point of view, which provides the reader with far more information that reveals why she acts the way she does.

For example, if we saw Lady Catherine's meddling from her point of view we might learn that when she was a child no one ever gave her any advice and as a result she made a very poor choice of husband that ruined her life. Her meddling is meant to help others--she sees others as being continually on the brink of making dangerous mistakes. That they don't understand this makes her sad, but she can't give up.

Narrate the scene with the piano in her POV and as she looks at her sickly daughter let the reader learn that her husband turned out to have syphilis. She is terrified that her daughter's sickliness is the result and blames herself for her condition. The dream world she has created about her daughter's abilities is an attempt to drown out her fears.

And her obsession with her daughter marrying Darcy? Stay in her POV and let the reader learn that she wants to protect her daughter from marrying someone dangerous, as she did, and the only way she can think of to do this is to marry her someone she can completely trust--her nephew, Darcy.

Were we to experience these scenes this way, Lady Catherine would no longer be funny because the reader would understand her motivations in a way that creates empathy. Then Lady Catherine's self-delusion, meddling, and matchmaking are no longer comic, but depending on how the author spins them, might be tragic or ironic.

The POV convention used in today's romance novel is the deep third person POV that takes us deep into the characters' personalities and builds empathy with them. That's important because we want our readers to fully enjoy the romance. But if you want your readers to laugh at characters, you have to step back from them and avoid those deep points of view. The less your reader knows about why the character is doing what they do, the funnier that character will be.

The Omniscient POV that Austen uses so masterfully is very well suited for comedy, as is the entire medium of film where we are always outside of the character judging them only from what they do or say, or what others say about them. Blending comedy and empathy, which is what I've tried to do in Lord Lightning is challenging. I start my readers out laughing and by the end, they are, I hope, feeling the emotions that my characters feel. Doing that turns out to be all about just how deeply I take my reader into their POV.

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