Friday, June 17, 2011

Secrets and Lies: Forgive Me

How do you feel about the hero or heroine keeping secrets from the other? Or lying?  The romance writer takes a gamble with secrets and lies. She knows that just because a character forgives another character, this is not a guarantee of reader forgiveness.
Generally, I'm instinctively ambivalent to betrayal in both my reading and my writing. I don't want the hero or heroine to break the trust of the other. I simply don't like that sort of conflict in real life so why would I search it out or create it? My patience for misunderstandings is relatively short.  Heck, life is too short!  And, in my writing, I want my hero and heroine to be liked. That's personal as well. If you like my characters, you like me. Why gamble with characteristics or actions that are going to risk that with the reader? After all, there are other conflicts available, either internal or external, and I don't think there has to be a lie or a secret. 

So, as a reader with that ability to see all sides of a situation, the reasoning for the betrayal is weighted heavily with a sense of what is right.  I must be convinced of the validity of the mitigating circumstances.

That's what my rational mind tells me, anyway. But somehow, in both my novels to date, a secret or a lie sneaks in.  Actually, that's not accurate.  It doesn't sneak in, it enters boldly as the only logical option to a human -- aka messy -- situation.  Once I get to know those two imperfect people, it seems almost inevitable that a secret or a lie becomes a possibility real and imperfect people would consider.  Then, it grows as a valid reason for character change for both characters; for the one perpetrating the betrayal and also the one on the receiving end.

When I think about the heart of the matter, this secret or lie evolves out of what one of the main characters wants most. What that has been in both my stories has been the hero's desire to protect the heroine. His method of doing so, whether or not somewhat misguided by his sense of knowing what's best in the long run, has involved a lie or a secret.

So, there it is.  After much soul searching, a betrayal has been reasoned out to be necessary.  We're "on board" for all sorts of  hypothetical "no-no's."  Isn't it amazing what we can justify?  With the proper motivational understanding, we can say...he had to do that because of such and such and some how, it makes sense.

So just how do we define "some how"?  This challenge is not for the faint of heart.  How much betrayal can a reader can stomach,  what is forgivable and is reader sympathy maintained in the midst of a betrayal?  A writer may wonder and worry if the bases were covered.  In my opinion, here are a several possible emotional tools of the trade, so to speak, when delving into the realm of "secrets and lies":
  1. Guilt. This one I think is very effective. Guilt implies that the character is aware of doing something wrong. Is it tearing them up inside and are they on the brink of confession? It can be overplayed, of course. Feeling guilty but continuing bad behavior or rationalizing it away too long is risky.
  2. Intend to Tell. Is it a matter of bad timing? Perhaps the character comes around to the error of his/her ways and the reader sees this.  But, wouldn't you know it, he/she waits a bit too long, and, bam!, the betrayal happens anyway-- the secret is leaked in the worst possible way. It might be an overused ploy, but it's effective because the blame isn't really placed solely on the character.  Good intentions should count for something, right?
  3. Sacrifice. What is more honorable than a sacrifice; the act of putting another's needs before your own? The downside is that it's possible that the character on the receiving end will feel betrayed by a sacrifice. This could happen if, for example, a heroine doesn't want the hero to sacrifice if it means losing him! But the reader may be sympathetic.
  4. The"For Their Own Good" clause. Perhaps this is a bit of a God complex. The character knows best. I'm guilty of using this one quite often for my hero. I guess that's part of the package for an alpha hero to believe he is right and he is protecting the heroine with a secret or lie for her own good. Guilt can be smothered and actions rationalized with the For Their Own Good clause. There is a line that can be crossed with this one, and many a villain has walked over it. But when used for good, I can't help get a bit of a gooey feeling that the hero cares so much to take such an active role for what he truly believes is protecting the one he loves.
When it goes wrong.  What is unforgivable? I think the answer to this can be either an absence of the above or perhaps the excess of the above. For me, what it comes down to is if the betrayal leads to character change for the good and if it's not an interchangeable betrayal. Could this scene be plopped down in a different story?  If so, it didn't really seem like a necessary plot that that evolved from the circumstances.  I've heard that advice for love scenes and I think it applies for betrayal as well. In other words, what counts as a forgivable betrayal is different for every person and every character.

What makes betrayals forgivable or unforgivable in your opinion? Do you ever write conflict that in your own life, or reading, you'd shy away from?

2 comments:

  1. What a great post -- and I love all the "emotional tools of the trade" you've listed.

    I love when characters are "misguided", trying to do the right thing, only it messes things up for somebody else. If they're just being mean or hurtful, it's a different situation, but most of the time the secrets, or prevarications, or whatever, are designed to protect the one who ends up getting hurt by the revelation.

    It makes for interesting reading! And whenever I think "I can't do such-and-such in this book", all of a sudden that's the ONLY thing that will work for the story, just like you said. LOL Darn those characters!

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  2. Donna, actually, it's been a while since I scratched the surface of my characters' secrets. I wrote this post a long time ago and it's been buried in the archives. But looking over it again to repost reminded me that one of the most compelling draws of writing is when you know a character so well that you're itching to explain their decisions -- especially those "wrong decisions made for the right reasons." The strange thing is, it seems to come as a surprise to me too when the character starts explaining him/herself! LOL

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