Along with other generic gestures, crying is a crutch that can sink a novel. Particularly in children’s novels, some writers turn their characters into blubbering messes at the slightest provocation.
I know, because I am one of those writers! When I wrote early drafts of Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, the characters cried way too much and my editor had to push me to use crying much more sparingly.
Even in adult novels it can become a crutch, and many characters’ eyes become misty or well with tears at drop of a hat.
Why avoid crying? Well, it’s pretty simple. Crying is one of our most extreme emotional responses as humans, and so… it needs to be extreme in a novel too. If it’s used too much, crying stops possessing any particular meaning.
A good rule of thumb: Just as with the other generic gestures, a character probably shouldn’t cry more than once or twice in an entire novel.
Don’t use crying as a crutch. Only show a character crying when they have really, truly lost it.
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Art: Madonna di Campagna a Verbania by Maestro di san Rocco a Pallanza
oh, i’m so glad you covered this topic! i’ve never seen/heard it discussed before, but i was in a writers group once with a woman who had her characters cry all. the. time. i pointed it out quite often, but she kept doing it. if i’d known to call it a crutch, perhaps that would have helped her stop. i like the idea of it as a last resort. well done.
I get it, but when I think about teens I think about crying a lot. LIKE A LOT ALOT. Because teens are so emotional and everything hurts so much more. Wouldn’t a teen like to recognize themselves in a book? That emotional wreck that they are. I can be wrong. I’m willing to be wrong. Because I do get that when crying does show up, it hits harder if it hasn’t been happening so much already.
Nathan Bransford says
I think this gets back to writing for how teens seeing themselves rather than how adults see them. An adult may see a teen and think they’re crying all the time, but I really don’t think a teen would think of themselves that way.
I also think teens are pretty harsh judging other teens for things like crying, so you have to factor that into how a teen reader is going to judge a character on the page.
Maybe. Although I remember crying a lot as a teen. Not being invited to a party. When Kara D. was mean to me. Not getting the part I wanted. The boy ignoring me. Just because. But I wonder what I thought of myself at the time. Was it something I recognized then? And maybe this is me resisting cutting out all the crying in my book. Wink wink nudge nudge (I’m certain I’m using this incorrectly).
Writing is hard!
Ken Hughes says
It does depend on the character — some people do cry much more, usually the ones that are overwrought, or manipulative. Then it might be a case of knowing what it takes to bring a person like that to tears and making it clear it’s only them. It’s one of those quirks that seems like careless writing if you just put it in, but works well if another character points out that yes, it really is distinctive. Then you can explore how characters deal with someone like that.
But that’s all based on knowing how most characters *don’t* cry so much.
My WIP follows the lives of three young, vulnerable women, all of whom endure numerous traumas over a tumultuous five-year period. It is natural for someone to cry after having experienced a tragedy or trauma. When a character’s journey amounts to an emotional roller-coaster, how is it possible to avoid crying scenes, especially when those scenes are largely based on real-life events where tears were liberally shed? Wouldn’t it be unfair, even unrealistic, to strip the characters of their true-life counterparts’ emotions?
Nathan Bransford says
Fiction is not real life in many ways and this is one of them. Do what you need to do to be true to the novel, but I still think this advice applies. Find other ways of showing the emotion beyond tears and only use crying when they are truly at the end of their rope.
An interesting character pattern I’ve noticed with females to one degree or another (and it might be sometimes true among males as well) is that they can fall into one of two categories: where they cry easily and are reasonably even tempered; or they rarely cry, but they lose their temper more often.
P.S. Not a fictional character pattern, but a living person (often female) characteristic. I’ve also noticed that those who tend to cry as a reaction to fear, frustration or sadness usually have more feminine characteristics while those who tend to react with anger, perhaps have more male tendencies. Could it be hormonal? I don’t know. But I’ve heard that those taking testosterone supplements can become more aggressive.
All just speculation FWIW.
JOHN T. SHEA says
Offhand, I can’t recall ever having anyone cry in anything I’ve written! But I have no problem with it as a reader. Like most things, it all depends.