If you’ve ever picked up a book by Jodi Picoult (and I have), the phrase “ripped from today’s headlines” might pop into your head. “There is a formula to a Picoult book: each takes a controversial ethical issue—‘designer babies,’ high-school shootings, child abuse, the death penalty—and pits sympathetic characters, often family members or best friends, on either side of the debate,” this article in Newsweek says.
Jodi Picoult is a good writer and she tells a good story. My Sister’s Keeper, for one, is very compelling—even though it seemed a teensy-weensy bit far-fetched. (But … it was the eleventh novel of a well-established author; she could get away with it. And maybe I just lead a sheltered life.) Picoult writes about situations likely to make you squirm, situations in which the answers are ambiguous and the moral is neither black nor white but firmly in the grey.
This notion of building a fictional story around a real-life tragedy took on new meaning for me a few months ago, when a dramatic news report involved someone I knew. More specifically, someone with whom the Boy went to high school. They were acquaintances, not close. He and she both got education degrees—as did several of their mutual friends—at different colleges and set off on different paths. When next I heard of Celia,* she was under arrest, at age twenty-five, for having an affair with a seventeen-year-old boy who was also her student.
Stop right here, and consider your immediate reaction. Was it revulsion? Anger? Righteous indignation? I’m here to tell you this: when you know someone, even at a remove, your response might be different. Instead of rushing to judgment, you find yourself asking what went wrong. And therein lies the psychological drama that creates a story.
It is a terrible tragedy, this, for two families. For Celia, it is a single horrible lapse in judgment and her very young life will never be the same. I am a mother, and this is what I thought first (a horrible mistake—a mistake—made in youth). Parents of the Boy’s friends reacted in similar ways; after all, we know our grown children—as far as we’re concerned, they’re barely out of childhood. And we’ve lived some ourselves: we know how easy it is for strong emotions to get out of hand. There but for the grace of God and all that.
What was more interesting was the reaction of the Boy and his friends. She knew what she was doing, they said, disgusted. She has a master’s in education, how could she do such a thing? It was wrong, wrong, WRONG. There wasn’t a smidgen of sympathy to be had between them, and plenty of moralizing. And in the meantime, the things being said about this young woman—in public news forums, by people who knew nothing about her—were truly awful.
This is all I know. (Oh, there’s a little more, but it doesn’t matter. We’re talking about ideas for fiction here.) It was the human reactions that arrested my attention, and that’s only the beginning if you’re writing fiction.
After reactions, you can speculate about motives—every character has them. And what about circumstances? Ask: What if the boy weren’t her student at all (from another school, say), but still eight years younger? I have girlfriends married to younger men and no one lifts an eyebrow; how would this be different? Ask: What if she were from a wealthy family? What if she were from a poor family? How would any of these things change the story?
Jodi Picoult has been dining out on this sort of tragedy for more than twenty years (and she’s certainly not the only creative to do so). Take a look at Picoult’s work again. And then take a look at the news.
*Not her real name, of course.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”