happiness and plot

February 17, 2009

I got an email from a reader last month asking about Kitty and happiness, and if I was worried about making her too happy/comfortable.  The reader shared a quote from another author, basically to the effect that if the main character was happy, there’d be no story.  I had to think about this because I hadn’t considered the question at all.  Kitty’s happiness has never factored into the equation when I’m figuring out plots or what happens next.  In fact, I’ve made an effort to throw good things her way.  Luis in Washington?  I thought she deserved a little unencumbered romp after all the crap she went through in the first book.

Here’s what I decided:  the story doesn’t come from Kitty’s happiness, or lack thereof.  Story comes from conflict.  Story comes from seeing whether or not the main character accomplishes her goals, whether the goal is solving a murder, creating a radio show, or surviving a homicidal maniac.  The character should struggle, yes.  Bad things should happen, yes.  But without some sense of optimism or triumph or sense that she’s struggling for a purpose, or that she can overcome the obstacles, the books would be a drag to read, and I don’t want that.  Doing horrible things to the main character just for the sake of making her suffer doesn’t necessarily make for good story.

I was raised Catholic, which is a polite way of saying I’m no longer practicing, but there are cultural aspects of Catholicism that have stayed with me.  (Don’t get me started about the guilt thing.)  One of the more thought-provoking things I took away from Catholicism was from a sermon I heard in college.  The priest said, “You can suffer and still be happy.”  That this is coming from a religion that has so much ecstatic martyrdom in its history isn’t surprising.  But what it really means is this:  suffering comes from without, happiness comes from within.  Someone who’s doing it the other way around — expecting happiness from without and suffering from within — will never be happy.

I’ve never felt a need to do terrible things to Kitty just for the sake of making her suffer.  I’ve thrown terrible obstacles in her path because I wanted to see what would happen.  I want to bring the real world into the books, which is why stuff like the prison thing happen.  But I haven’t worried about Kitty being too happy.  She has a lot of good stuff in her life, I think.  So her struggle — and the books — become about what she has to do to hold on to that good stuff.

13 Responses to “happiness and plot”

  1. Devi Says:

    What I love best about the Kitty books is that the plot doesn’t revolve around her being a tragic character and that she’s well adjusted and (usually) happy. It’s so refreshing to read books like that but there are so few of them.

    Kitty’s curiosity is more than enough to provide plots. And it makes for much more interesting books, too. Her world is cool enough that she doesn’t need personal drama and meltdowns to keep things going. Thanks for that.

  2. Westly Says:

    Personally…I want Kitty to be happy! It makes me smile to read about someone who’s life is going GOOD. And, after Dead Man’s Hand it seems to be going well. (Though…I can’t wait to read Raises Hell!!)

    Struggle isn’t always about giant drama and crushing depression. Seriously, sometimes it’s trying to get to the train on time, and the hilarity that, in and of it’s self, can be! It’s struggle but it’s still fun with a character who’s happy anyway!

    I hope Kitty remains a positive person, with attainable happiness. (If a little paranoid! Of course, with good reason!)

  3. Antonio Rich Says:

    I love Kitty and that she’s well adjusted too. She has it “together” enough to dispense advice to others on the radio. But, inner conflict is a valid and interesting thing for a person/character to deal with as well. What balances the character, for me, is that she isn’t all powerful and has all the answers for everything in all situations. The heroine i originally emailed to you about does have great, and largely untapped, power. The author i mentioned chooses to give the character more to deal with internally. I really like the differences and the two approaches. The question: how powerful is Kitty going to become? She’s come so far and experienced so much…she has so many people counting on her now. And, watching. I don’t want her to become a superhero.

  4. Gillian Says:

    The fact that Kitty is so well-adjusted is what I love about the books. Sure, she has drama in her life but she doesn’t make more of it than what it is and doesn’t fall down in a heap, wailing at the injustices of the world. Her biggest quality in every situation is, for lack of a better term, pragmatic hope. She always hopes for the best outcome, but if no one comes to her rescue, she’s practical enough to get on with it and try to bring about that outcome herself.

    If she wasn’t happy and content in herself, that wouldn’t happen. And she’d be a grown up emo-kid and that is just sad. Unless it’s Twilight. Then it becomes delightfully tragic, as in the writing and plot is truly horrible and yet I can’t get enough of it… Sorry, I digressed.

  5. Markysan Says:

    I hate to say “me too!”, but I agree that, while Kitty started out as rather pathetic and codependent (in Carl and Meg’s pack), she’s risen above it all.

    Her ability to overcome and “deal with it” is one of her more endearing traits.

  6. carriev Says:

    Hey, Antonio, I bet you were starting to think I was never going to post on this. Thanks for chiming in.

    I suppose it depends on how you define superhero, but I don’t see Kitty becoming much more powerful than she already is. I see her maybe getting wiser and figuring more things out. I see her getting into bigger and bigger trouble, but by then she’ll have the skills to overcome. I hope. 🙂

    Some writers can do angst. I get annoyed when the angst overwhelms everything else. Once again, I go back to Bujold’s Vorkosigan series as my model of how to do it right. Miles has plenty of angst, but he’s also crazy brilliant and pulls himself up by his bootstraps every damn time.

  7. Robert Says:

    Hi Carrie,
    I am glad you brought up Miles in to this conversation because he is one of my favorite characters of all time. Along with Kitty and a young man named Tavi from Codex Alera a Jim Butcher series. I think all three characters fit the topic perfectly.
    Take Care,

  8. Chris Says:

    I am so glad to read this. A couple of my favorite series became nothing but non-stop angst fests. I’d hate to see it happen to Kitty.

  9. Nonny Says:

    I bless the day my mom stood up to the family and said I got to go to public high school. 🙂 The Catholic girls high school she saved me from was known as the Old Nuns Home. 😦

  10. Nonny Says:

    Oops accidentally hit submit. Meant to add that I once was at a party that got quiet just as somebody was saying, “there is no such thing as an exCatholic.” Half the people there, including me, got really noisy, yelling, “Oh yes there is!” LOL

    And I meant to add that I came in on Kitty Takes a Holiday, and was fascinated by Kitty’s journey from newly bitten to strong and courageous.

  11. Mom Says:

    I think what they meant about there being no exCatholics is that many cradle Catholics, even though they no longer attend Mass or follow anything from the church, can’t get rid of some of the attitudes from being raised Catholic – guilt, self-determination, good deeds, etc.

  12. jackie Says:

    Hey – another cultural American catholic! I too had an inspirational catholic teacher. He said he chose Catholicism over Buddhism because he felt the world god made is good and wonderous and he was glad to be alive. That part I agreed with. I then told him that Catholicism and Buddhism are not mutually exclusive. I love doing that.

    And I like your separation of happiness and eventfulness. Optimism can be indepent of depression as well. I have suffered with clinical depression on and off for close to 20 years but I always continue to expect and look for the positive in the world around me. The group therapy session when I realised this trith about myself was quite amusing as well as personally useful.

  13. Brandon Says:

    Wow, that’s brilliant and wonderfully put.

    A character must always be faced with obstacles but when you make the character miserable from them what fun is it to read.

    I think you’ve struck a wonderful balance in Kitty’s stories in that she is always the underdog and always has trouble on her heels, but she never lets it get at her mentally and faces it with a wit that I wish everyone had in bad circumstance.

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