"No character should cry more than once in a book," more than one of the faculty advisors said this past residency.
Having written a book in which the character cries probably four or five times - and all, I'd say, with really good reason - this made me stop and think. Is it cliche to have a character cry? Or worse, is it lazy on my part?
What is the more creative way to show emotion? How can we surprise our readers?
By showing them trying NOT to do it, Ellen Bass says. Show your characters trying NOT to be undone by their feelings - trying NOT to cry, trying NOT to get angry. THIS is the interesting emotion!
And above all, not resorting to cliche bodily function to tell us how a character is feeling.
How many times have you read (or written) that someone's heart was pounding? That their hands were sweaty? That they cried? If you're like me, probably a lot. And does that make my own heart pound, feel nervous and anxious or scared or excited? No. It makes me know that the character feels that way, but it doesn't make me as a reader feel that way.
And isn't that what we want from a reader? Their participation in the story? For them to feel as though they are right there with our character?
Replace those cliche bodily functions with gestures, Bass suggested to us. Observe yourself and others. What do we do when we are nervous or scared or excited? What do we do when we are crying, or better yet, trying not to cry?
I think, even here, it is tricky not to fall in cliches. Biting nails, twisting hair around a finger, biting the lip. These are all so common they can become as emotionally desaturated as a heart pounding.
I read a chapter of a friend's WIP last week that was riddled with this kind of cliched telling. I felt completely detached watching the scene, and I know that was the opposite of what she wanted. When she went back to re-write it, she replaced much of the telling me how the character's body was acting (crying, clenched stomach) with much more interesting gestures (closed eyes, brow furrowed, reaching out but then dropping his hand before he touched her) and some dialogue that told me more about how the characters were feeling that narrative ever could, even though (or because) the characters never really SAID how they were feeling.
For me, this is the hard work of writing: finding a way to say my story in a way no one has before. Using images and gestures that are unique to my characters that will bring the reader in rather than leave them on the outside observing. It's something I'm struggling with right now, and yet so excited about as well. It's one thing, I think, that can truly make good writing great. I'm certainly not there yet!
How about you? Do you find your character crying too much? Do you tend to lean on tried-and-true (but often cliche) gestures or feelings, and does it work for you?