Friday, June 14, 2013

Honor Thy Father And Mother

Christianity shares the moral foundation of Judaism in that it asserts unconditional, perpetually binding obligations upon all mankind: the Ten Commandments. Whether you believe in these things or not, it makes sense to understand what they say, how they reflect human nature, and their relationship to culture.

American society routinely disrespects parents. I've known several professed, devout Christians who have no problem talking about how legalistic their parents were and dysfunctional their families were. I've seen Christian preachers get all Freudian about their childhood wounds rooted in a father's absence or a mother's over-protectiveness.

Had these same people said, "sh*t" or "f*ck," they'd be immediately castigated as sinners. But they slide through slanders of their parents without problem. This makes me think American Christendom regards the 5th Commandment as just a mere suggestion.

Conversely,when I see a Bollywood movie wherein the parents arrange a protagonist's marriage to the "wrong" partner, I shake my head in disbelief at the conflict. Americans are culturally programmed to feel no obligation to honor their parents' wishes in matters of the heart. Any American Evangelical would just shrug and walk away, while thinking herself more righteous than the Hindu who honors her parents.

(A common misconception is that one performs the Ten Commandments to get something nice. A better view is that one performs these obligations because they shape one's character in a beneficial way. In the Bollywood movie, dealing with the disappointment of parental opposition to a potential lover and honoring parental wishes certainly appears to build character. It certainly makes the story more interesting.)

In particular, I think it is interesting when someone honors parents who are not honorable characters. We're all human and we all make mistakes. Parents are certainly make their share of mistakes and some parents are downright evil. What does it say of a child who nevertheless honors that parent? I think it is wrong to excuse evil, but nobody requires a child be an accuser (except totalitarians).

In these cases, I feel much more sympathy toward the character, because my mind revolts at the injustice. It is not fair that the boy or the girl should be denied happiness just to honor the parents' demands.

The first objective of the novelist should be creating sympathy toward the protagonist. Americans like underdog stories. Most commonly the underdog is the poor kid who suffers at the hands of the mean girls. Or the sports team with a disgraced coach composed of a motley crew who faces off against an all-star team. But I think the adult child honoring a dishonorable parent is an even more sympathetic figure.

Who among us hasn't at one time or another said to our parents, "That's not fair."

The writer just needs to create a situation where it really is not fair to evoke the reader's sympathies. Be careful here, some of your readers are like me. I said, "That's not fair," when I was just being a jerk and I didn't know any better. The situation has to be undeniably not-fair.

You can work in a twist, too. Perhaps your protagonist is a scion of a very rich family who says, "If you marry that girl from the wrong side of the tracks, you are disinherited." The twist is to test the kid and the love-interest to see if their love is bigger than money. Just try not to be obvious about it.

Of all the Bible stories, I like the story of Joseph best, because he doesn't become bitter despite being mistreated by his brothers, falsely accused, tossed into jail, and suffering his fellow-prisoner's broken promise.

Here's a fellow who's better than I could ever be because he keeps on doing his best while suffering serial reversals. And when he has a chance at payback with his parents dead and his brothers at his mercy, he points out their evil toward him was part of a larger purpose that saved many lives.

That, dear writer, is what you must do. Feel free to be your own Old Testament deity.

Make your protagonist suffer every possible misfortune or injustice. The greater the heroism in scene N, the greater the unfairness for it in scene N+1. (This is the only thing what prevents Horatio Hornblower from becoming a Marty Stu.) Your story arc should drag  your protagonist through Purgatory. Honoring dishonorable parents is a great way to make your readers sympathize with your protagonist.

Bonus points if your protagonist can win Paradise in the denouement.

1 comment:

  1. Once again, in reviewing my brothers' column I am impressed with his logic. My favorite line has to be 'Feel free to be your favorite Old Testament deity'. Scandalous! Heresy! (Not really) Awesome? Yes! You've done it again Watson.


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