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Wright’s Writing Corner: Spock vs. Elf – An Author’s Dilemma
I have been wanting to write about this for quite some time. Today seems like the day.
It has come to my attention that there are two kinds of readers when it comes to reading about emotions. (There may be more, but I’ve only discovered two of them.)
The first one, I shall call the Spock Reader. The second I shall call the Elf Reader.
Spock Readers distain shows of emotion. Many men fall into this category, but I know some women who say the same thing. To them, emotion is barbaric, and calmness is a sign of advancement. Characters who show emotion are immediately dismissed as either feminine or weak. Cool-headed, collected characters are to be admired.
The characters admired by the Spock Reader embody the best of humanity—mankind’s ability to rise above the primitive and resist the animal passions, the triumph of the intellect.
Elf Readers are the opposite. They live in a world where only the most highly-discerning are swept away by strong emotions, while the masses are callous and unfeeling—incapable of appreciating what is truly there. The Elf Reader, to quote my dad’s favorite line from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita: "burns with the bliss and suffers the sorrow of every creature”. Characters who show deep emotional reactions reach them. Cool, emotionless characters seem stiff and lacking.
The characters admired by the Elf Reader embody the best of humanity—mankind’s ability to emphasize with others, our love of art, of beauty, of music, of the things that touch the soul.
To the Spock Reader, an ideal character to read about might be a soldier who never loses his cool even in the heat of battle. Detective books and thrillers often have such characters. Spock himself is such a character.
To the Elf Reader, an ideal character might be a lonely young girl, perhaps with a cruel stepmother, who suffers because of her intelligence and compassion allow her to experience so much more than the uncaring people around her. Books for teens and romances often have such characters.
Which brings us to the author’s dilemma: which character do we put in our books?
Because, folks, we can’t do both at once, make our characters both cold as ice and hot as flame.
Or can we?
There are characters who appeal to both groups. Spock himself is a good example. The Spock Readers love his logic. The Elf Readers love his ears…er…I mean, his struggle with his human side, the emotions he attempts to control. In this one character, both readerships can find something to relate to. (I would say empathies with, but that’s Elf Reader talk right there.)
But then some viewers found Spock cold and preferred Bones, with his warmth and compassion, or Kirk, with his ability to make us feel that he really saw and appreciated what was best in human beings.
And yet, not every story can carry both kinds of characters. Books that cater to one of these readerships run the risk of losing all their readers if they try to cater too much to the other readership at the same time. Readers who love James Bond are often not the same ones who love Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. The audience of the Bourne Identity are often not the ones found waiting at the bookstore at midnight with their roses and ballgowns for the next Twilight novel.
So…how does an author decide how far to go? How much should our elf burn with the bliss and suffer the sorrow of all mankind? How icy should our Vulcan be? If we go to a farther extreme, will we gain more loyalty out of our desired readership? Or just lose the middle ground reader who now finds our characters too emo or too cold.
What is your preferred reading style? Where do you like authors to draw the line?
Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon
As a semi-Spock reader, I look for heroes/heroines who struggle to remain cool and do the right thing and keep a grip on themselves---most of the time.
I think I like books that balance the two things, and both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are good examples.
Cathy comes off as the Courtney Love of her time in many ways. All fire and self-absorption and not giving a hang for the consequences as does Heathcliff. But the next generation, though tortured by creepy, elderly Heathcliff, manages to get their collective act together and love one another despite the terrible obstacles. They've beaten their circumstances and wild man Heathcliff, too.
In Jane Eyre, the hero appears to be cold, forbidding and ruthless logical. But he has a biting wit and plays pranks on his guests. The heroine refuses to succumb to his advances once she finds out he's married and makes a good and useful life away from him only to be drawn back when she somehow hears his tortured voice. But that is not to say she would have slept with him had he still been married though she refuses to succumb to a loveless match with her missionary cousin, either.
I like the balance with those books. The movies always leave out the more logical bits, I suppose because they are less thrilling. To me, the thrilling part is that conflict.
I should have mentioned Sense and Sensibility, which is kind of on this subject. ;-)
What an original way of thinking about readers! For those who write in a certain genre, as you pointed out, it is fairly easy to know who your readers are. Blended genres are a little more difficult to pin down. I write fantasy romance, with the emphasis on romance, so my readers are definitely elves. Sometimes it is a balancing act, though, when you want to appeal to both types of readers.
Thanks for a great, thought-provoking post.
|Date:||April 9th, 2014 03:21 pm (UTC)|| |
Re: Love this post!
Thanks! I've been working on this for a while. Still sorting out how best to handle writing about emotions. LOL
And in the middle ground...
Actually, Kirk may be a good example of a middle-ground character, one who is both logical and emotive. That's why both Spock and Bones can be loyal to him--and also why it's no accident that he's the one who is the captain and the "hero" (if there is one) of the series.
I suspect that we as writers can go quite far in making a character logical or emotive--as long as we reveal enough of the layers below the surface where the logical character suffers from some childhood pain for which emotional withdrawal was a survival tactic--or experiences pure rapture at an elegant mathematical solution. And where the emotive character can see clearly the logical path and when it feels right experience great joy at the congruence--or go with his feelings down the other path while suffering great angst about the irrationality of his choice. You see? Just like real people, when we dig deep enough.
|Date:||April 9th, 2014 04:43 pm (UTC)|| |
Re: And in the middle ground...
Definitely. I want to write a follow up article on how to put across emotions, exploring what works for a wider audience and what does not.
Though I think I could make a good argument for the fact that Kirk, not Bones, is the Elf. Kirk is the one who burns with the bliss and suffers the sorrow of all mankind. McCoy is emotive, but he is also cynical. ;-)
I guess I'm a Spock reader -- but I like good contrast and a good resolution, rather than cold dry puzzle details, or emotional diving.
I applaud Spock (and identify with him) when he does stick to his principles (as in the episode about his parents). What I really love is the contrast between him and the situations where he and the others are seeing things differently -- striking sparks of irony.
Often it's the other characters who see the contrast and smile affectionatlly. Once it was the theatre audience. At the end of a movie where Spock had been rescued but without his memory, he was introduced to the crew as strangers, and went around to each one saying things like: "You risked your life for me...?" then going to the next person. The whole audience was breathing in time with the comment he never added.
There's the same kind of contrast in the tv show Bones especially the early seasons.
And in Narnia, different characters at cross purposes, for contrast. Hm, Reepicheep had the logical single-mindedness, but it was built around a core of emotion: gallantry etc.
Edited at 2014-04-10 12:53 am (UTC)
Reepicheep is a lovely example. Especially when countered with the rather emotional (in a Kirk-like way) Prince Caspian who wants so much to do things like see the end of the world.
"Spock" I get, but why "Elf"? Who do you have in mind? The definitive elves of modern fantasy are Tolkien's: surely empathetic, since they have all natural virtues, but not commonly swept away by emotional reactions.
Or is it that I, as a Spock, downplay that in my reading of them? ...No, I really don't think so. The most swept-away-by-emotion Elves I can remember offhand are Feanor and his sons in the process of bollixing everything up horribly.
Are there some non-Tolkien elves that you're thinking of in particular?
|Date:||April 10th, 2014 12:52 pm (UTC)|| |
I am not thinking of Tolkien elves. You are right. They don't fit.
I thinking of the elfwife from old fairytales who laughs at funerals and cries at weddings.
Oh, and to answer the question at the end, both extremes are problematic. I mean, the reason Spock works as a character is precisely that everyone knows he does too have emotions, regardless of his words. If his loyalty to Kirk was based on pure rational appreciation for his qualities as a commander, no reader (well, viewer) would like him half so much.
But if I'm supposed to appreciate someone for their suffering, just stressing how terribly much they feel it may not be the best approach. And if the intensity of their feelings makes them do stupid things -- not exactly uncommon in either fiction or real life -- I am unlikely to find that sympathetic.
(Complicated romantic subplots -- or plots -- that could be short-circuited with ten minutes of honest conversation? Yeah, not really a fan.)
I love stories with heartbreak...but it has to be real--ie caused by something that is hard to solve, not just a simple misunderstanding.
|Date:||April 10th, 2014 04:58 am (UTC)|| |
In The Middle
While I lean towards the Spock side, honestly, I'm not a big fan of Jack Reacher OR Bella Swan - though I have read books from each series, and appreciated both for their respective merits.
My favorite characters are usually the ones that either 1) seem emotionless, but are actually driven by hidden passions, or 2) burn and suffer a great deal - love that line =) - but still manage to do what they have to do in spite of that. Characters with a blend of logic and emotion appeal to me the most, in other words, because those are the ones I find most human. It's the ones who shoot for one extreme or the other that I find hard to believe.
I like my porridge just right, thank you very much =)
|Date:||April 10th, 2014 12:50 pm (UTC)|| |
Re: In The Middle
I completely understand. The volcano covered with ice character is a favorite of mine. I like the calm guys. I like the calm and internally struggling guys. I like anime girls "living for love." (when they are done right.)
I bet many readers cross the boundaries or like the middle ground.
But there's one thing they can agree on: pointy ears are good!
Study Horatio Hornblower
My first response was that the combination couldn't be done...until I thought of C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower.
To the outside world, he's a nautical John Wayne. Brave, steel-nerved, cunning tactically and a great leader. But in his own mind, he's Woody Allen. Terrified when he goes into battle, worried about money most of the rest of the time, and despising himself for the rhetorical tools he uses to motivate his crew. The brilliance of the character lying in Hornblower's inner struggle.
|Date:||April 11th, 2014 02:39 am (UTC)|| |
Re: Study Horatio Hornblower
I had not realized that about Hornblower...interesting!
|Date:||April 11th, 2014 11:50 pm (UTC)|| |
This is somewhat tangential to your post, but it strikes at the heart of one of my pet peeves:
Elves do NOT have pointy ears! VULCANS have pointy ears!! Not Elrond, nor Galadriel, nor Legolas.-- least of all the great, proud, craft-wise Feanor!!!
Thank you for the opportunity to get this rant out of my system.
We shall have to agree to disagree... Elves were drawn with pointy ears a hundred years before Tolkien was born.
Tolkien DID NOT INVENT ELVES.
But..."if you wish to say: Tolkien's elves don't have pointed ears"...that's fine. ;-)
|Date:||April 19th, 2014 05:17 am (UTC)|| |
Yay Spock! Yay Elves!
Elf Readers are the opposite. They live in a world where only the most highly-discerning are swept away by strong emotions, while the masses are callous and unfeeling—incapable of appreciating what is truly there.
You mean like Galadrial, Elrond, and Celeborn?
Also, as a "Spock reader"(Appolonian, actually) I am filled with a "love of art, of beauty, of music, of the things that"
- light up the mind.
You already have the answer because you're a Christian, and not a Buddhist (bunch of no-account drunken wastrels), a Confucian (yay!) or a Hindu of (pick one! and only one!) ecstatic or monastic stripe. You know that the things to which emotions point: Love, desire, sorrow, joy, anger, hope, etc., etc., etc. (as the King said to Anna) are eternal and utterly desirable. You also know that the mark of the mature man (or woman) is subordination of the intellect and desire to will.
What satisfies both the wise Spock and elf (as you call them) reader are men with chests.
But you knew that. The trick is how to write that, and I'll leave that to you and your husband, who seem to know what you're doing.Edited at 2014-04-19 05:18 am (UTC)
|Date:||April 20th, 2014 03:09 am (UTC)|| |
Re: Yay Spock! Yay Elves!
|Date:||April 20th, 2016 12:11 am (UTC)|| |
Interesting exploration of reader styles. I believe we could extend that idea to explore the patterns of Spock writers vs Elf writers. It's something I've been attempting to explore within myself, having somewhat of a tendency to be a Spock writer and trying to overcome that tendency.
|Date:||April 20th, 2016 02:10 am (UTC)|| |
Re: Spock writers?
I think the approach might apply to many parts of life. ;-)