Written by Dan Wells
I like to make people cry.
To be fair, I like to make people do a lot of things: get mad, stand up and cheer, shiver involuntarily, and maybe even throw the book across the room. Emotional reactions are the whole point, right? If you read a book and it’s good and you like it, hooray, but if you read a book that affects you somehow, that changes you or challenges you or inspires you, double hooray. Triple.
But how do you do that?
Most of my thrillers, being thrillers, have relied on tension and tragedy for their emotional whammies. You love this character? Well guess what, NOW SHE’S DEAD. You want this character to be happy? Well TOO BAD, SUCKER, LIFE IS PAIN. This is fun, and certainly powerful, but it’s a pretty minor part of the emotional palette. We have so many feelings to play with, why not use them all? More to the point, positive emotions are often far more powerful than negative ones. If you want to make someone cry, why not do it because the world, and the people in it, are wonderful?
There has been a lot of noise in the psychological community lately over positive psychology and positive emotion: feelings of uplift and transcendence, and where they come from and why we have them and all the maybe-not-so-surprising ways they can improve not just our lives but our societies and our actual physiology. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has named one such emotion “elevation,” and defines it as the feeling we get when we see someone moving up and becoming better than they were. I love this emotion so much. I was first introduced to elevation by the film critic Roger Ebert, who said that he is most often moved to tears not by sadness, but by goodness.
Think about the most moving experiences you’ve had with art and the odds are great that they have been moments like this. Sam telling Frodo on the side of Mount Doom, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.” Data telling his dying daughter, in the Star Trek episode “The Offspring,” that he couldn’t feel love, and having the daughter respond, “Then I will feel it for both of us.” There is always room for a tragic catharsis, like Javert throwing himself to his death in Les Miserables, but don’t forget the power of the humble bishop at the beginning of the book, confronted with the accusation that Jean Valjean has stolen from him, who instead of charging him says “no, I gave those to him, and these too,” and then hands him the rest of the silver and sends him on his way to be a better man.
Elevation is further defined, by both Haidt and Evert, as a specifically social thing. We experience moments of joy more powerfully when we have other people to share them with, whether it’s a group of screaming sports fans celebrating a win, or a pair of proud parents watching together as their child does something wonderful. In Ebert’s words: “Empathy is the feeling that most makes us human. Elevation may be the emotion caused when we see people giving themselves up, if only for a moment, to caring about others.”
Which brings me back to my own books, and in particular to John Cleaver, the teenage sociopath for whom empathy is a constant struggle. When I sat down to write the latest book in the series, Over Your Dead Body, I made “breaking the reader’s heart” my overt goal. And I wanted to do it through elevation. Yes, there is tragedy involved, because John Cleaver is a tragic character, but this is new territory for him. He’s always been, above all else, a pragmatist, doing whatever it takes to hunt and kill the monsters on the fringes of reality, and he has always thought that this was the right thing to do. He’s always been willing to sacrifice his own happiness, but it’s always been in the service of his own goals.
This is the book where he makes a truly selfless choice for the first time ever, because he sets his own goals aside and helps someone else. I read it again last night, as I wrote this essay, and it made me tear up all over again.
I hope it makes you cry.
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