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LDS Fiction: Redefining Rock Bottom

April 15, 2009

In an earlier post, I referenced the importance of allowing characters to hit rock bottom, and discussed the problem that LDS fiction sometimes has, that of allowing God to rescue our characters too quickly. I’m redefining “rock bottom” a little in this post, because I just read a great YA book that does this very well. It’s called Fame, Glory, and Other Things on my To-do List, by Janette Rallison, an LDS YA author from Arizona. Total spoilers ahead, just so you know.

In this book, Jessica, the protagonist, loves acting. She also loves the new kid in town. She undermines her relationship with him by letting slip a secret that’s important to him. Then, in order to prove her love for him, she sabotages the school play and kisses him when she’s not supposed to at all. This proves to him (the son of a famous actor) that she really cares about him more than the theater.

Janette Rallison does a couple of important things here:

1-She allows her character to make a really large error in judgment. Jessica should not have told the secret. Bad idea. In telling the secret, she gained one of her desires–a school play to act in–but lost the other–her guy. In the terms Robert Mckee uses to describe fiction (in Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting) Jessica made a choice that broke open the gap and caused further events to unfold. The choice made her look bad, but without it, there would be no story. LDS fiction needs to allow its characters the agency to make bad choices sometimes.

2-She forces her character to hit rock bottom IN THE WORLD/GENRE OF THE CHARACTER. So in a teen’s life, what could be more humiliating than making a fool of yourself onstage in front of your friends, family, potential boyfriend’s parents, and a Hollywood agent? Nothing, right? And yet she has to choose that humiliation in order to gain love, which is what she wants most.

Reading this book so close to reading Robert McKee made me realize that “rock bottom” means different things to different characters and different genres. In light YA fiction like this book, rock bottom means total humiliation. In Pride and Prejudice, rock bottom is when Elizabeth realizes that Darcy saved her sister Lydia by forcing Wickham to marry her, and that therefore all her earlier criticisms of his character were ill-founded. In Ender’s Game, rock bottom is when Ender realizes that the war games he’s been playing are real, and he’s destroyed an entire race while saving the world.

So what does “rock bottom” mean in LDS fiction? I can’t always put my finger on it, but I know it when I read it… in general, I think that the best “rock bottom” moments are character-driven, not event-driven. Just as we have a deus ex machina inherent in our theology, there’s also sometimes a tendency to let outside catastrophe create a false rock bottom. This proves that our protagonist is really a good person, because none of the truly bad things that happen to him/her in the book are his/her fault. For example: heroine A is plucky, shows her faith in God, and yet towards the end of the book a handcart falls on her leg and breaks it [this is a totally made up book]. Though distraught, she struggles on, and her faith and pluckiness get her to the end of the book with grace.

Okay, yes, that’s a terrible event. In fact, in real life, it’s that kind of event (hello broken leg!) that makes me feel like I’ve hit bottom. But. In a novel, the best rock bottom events are the ones that, if they employ external events, combine them with consequences of the character’s choices, not merely responses to sudden bad events. Or heck, even a well-foreshadowed but externally imposed bad event is just not as effective as a rock bottom created from the decisions a character has made. Why? Because externally imposed climaxes feel fake, even when they are well-foreshadowed, unless they’ve got some underlying character-driven angst going on as well.

I am happy to report that my favorite Whitney finalists (see here) are great at reaching rock bottom, each in their own genre. They allow their characters the freedom to make bad choices, and then suffer the full consequences of their character-driven (or well-foreshadowed external) events.

I so want my picks to win. Mostly for their sakes, because they deserve it, but partly as a vindication of my own opinions.

At least I’m honest about it…

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