The above-the-fold story on the front page of the newspaper today was about the hardships of small marijuana farmers. That once fabulously lucrative crop now only nets one-fourth the money that it did in its heyday (or perhaps I should say “hayday”). Industrial growers, new seeds geared toward indoor plants, and the push for legalization have made things tough for small, independent growers.
This seemed sort of a tactless (I’m being kind here) article to publish after a summer of droughts when food crops dried up and family farms disintegrated to dust, but beyond that, why are we supposed to care about the small independent marijuana farmer? This is like having to feel sorry for burglars because corporate greed has left nothing for them to steal. Marijuana may someday be legal, but it is not now (except for a few isolated instances) and it certainly wasn’t back in the seventies when these people started their “farm.”
It’s a good object lesson for writers, though. If you want readers to care about the plight of your characters, you have to give them something and someone to care about. In this case, the writer tried to paint a sympathetic picture — after the crop is cashed in, the farmers won’t have enough left to take their usual celebratory trip to Hawaii. Again — why are we supposed to care? They worked outside the law for decades, and while the law never caught up with them, the laws of supply and demand finally did. Seems like justice to me. So, why are we supposed to care?
This is a good question to keep in mind when you are writing your books. Too often people take short cuts, for example, relying on a mother character with rebellious teenagers to garner empathy. Such a character may gain immediate sympathy from women in that same situation, but readers who have never had children need something more than a flat insert-self-here-character to make them care. The character needs to be struggling with something more universal, such as the character’s feelings of rejection or abandonment from her almost-adult children, or conflicting loyalties between her husband and her children, or her struggles to deal with her own rites of passage.
Sometimes all you need to do to make a character sympathetic is to give them simple wants. In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, all Kate wants is a good night’s sleep. She’s been haunted by her not always thoughtful behavior during her husband’s long dying, and sleep eludes her. Ideally, her plight should gain empathy — most of us have struggled with insomnia, most of us struggle with regrets, and most of us have dealt with loss. At one point in the story, Kate does step outside the law (though the law of survival took precedence over the interim laws of the quarantine), but by then, you know the character, her motivations, her struggles, and, you don’t have to pause in your reading to ask, “So why are we supposed to care?”