Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Character or Plot Device: Me Before You (Warning: Spoilers)

Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You is a New York Times bestselling book and a blockbuster movie. It’s also arguably the most controversial piece of fiction of the year. Me Before You is about British lost girl Louisa Clarke, who takes a job as a caretaker to quadriplegic Will Traynor. Lou and Will fall in love, but their relationship isn’t enough to keep him from going through with his plan to kill himself, at a special facility in Switzerland created just for the suicidal.

Advocates for the disabled have been less than pleased.

When the book first came out in early 2013, it was well received and noncontroversial. Moyes’s fans are a loyal lot, as are fans of women’s fiction in general. The book was so popular that Moyes wrote a sequel, After You.

Then the movie came out. And the proverbial shit hit the proverbial fan.

As a writer, I was dismayed. I would never want one of my characters to be seen as representative for everyone who looked like her. And with diversity in books a strong topic in publishing circles, the subtext seems to be that unless you’re a member of a particular class, you shouldn’t feature characters in that class in your writing. In Moyes’s case, Will wasn’t just a particular character, he was a representative of every quadriplegic in the world, and since he did not want to live, Moyes was saying that quadripledgics’ quality of life was so low, that none of them should want to live either. (This wasn’t a point of view I had picked up in the book, which is Louisa’s first person account.) To me, this is a very scary implication – but one that mirrors our society. After all, every time a white man is in the news, he is judged for his actions alone. But a woman, a minority, or a Muslim breaks a law, and he or she is a symbol for every member of his/her gender, race or religion. So Will, a disabled character in a medium that rarely features disabled characters, is a symbol for all disabled people – and not necessarily a flattering one.

I read these criticisms with a heavy heart. A YA novel I’m working on features a morbidly obese teenage girl. Another one I’ve outlined stars a bi-racial teen. Are these characters or symbols? Will I be judged if they are not perfect?

And then I saw the damn movie.

While the movie Me Before You is just as much Louisa’s story as the book Me Before You, there is an impact to seeing certain elements play out on a huge screen rather than in words. Of course Moyers described Will as gorgeous, living in a castle, wealthy beyond measure, brilliant. But it’s one thing to read those words – Louisa’s words – and another to see him for yourself. And in the film, Will seems to have an amazing life. He has two parents who adore him (in the book, they were at odds and his father was having an affair), a funny, reliable male nurse/aide who’s always there, a van to drive him around, a beautiful living area, and a huge TV with lots of DVDs to watch. And then he has Louisa. They fall in love, but it doesn’t make a difference – Will is determined to kill himself, and nothing changes his mind. (I assume psychologists were brought on off-screen, and anti-depressants were involved.) In one scene, Will describes his favorite Parisian restaurant. Louisa wants to go, but Will shoots her down. He wants to remember it – himself – as he was, and not have to worry about his wheelchair not fitting under the table.

The message seems to be there’s no amount of wealth or love that can make up for living in a less-than-perfect body. Yes, Will’s nurse tells Louisa that he’s in pain, and sometimes he can hear Will screaming. (This is never shown.) He has a quick bout with pneumonia. But overall, his life looks worth living. No wonder advocates for the disabled were furious. Will wasn’t a character at all – he was just a plot device.

I am a firm believer of that old writers’ saying, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” In other words, stories are stories, characters are characters, and messages belong in telegrams. But I also find myself questioning some of Moyers’s choices (as I did when I reviewed an earlier book, The Girl You Left Behind. If she had made different ones, would the result be more palatable?

For instance, the choice to make Will come from a wealthy family. Perhaps Moyers chose this so that Will’s desire to kill himself isn’t a result of the incredible cost of care. Had Will’s family been poor or middle class, it would have been a different story – and perhaps the money wouldn’t have been there to hire Louisa. But by making Will wealthy, she made his life easier, and his decision to end it less understandable.

Then there’s the choice to make Will an investment banker rather than an athlete. Although Will is an avid weekend warrior, he works at a desk from 9-5. This is a puzzling choice from Moyers – after all, Will already came from a wealthy family, so it’s not like he needed that hedge fund money to fund his castle. Moreover, Moyers based Will on a real-life rugby player who went to this Swiss facility after becoming paralyzed. It is easier to understand how a professional athlete would see his life being over than a business executive, even if that executive enjoyed kite sailing. (And truthfully, advocates for the disabled were just as angry at the end of Million Dollar Baby.)

Another odd choice was the character of Louisa’s boyfriend Patrick, a personal trainer who trained for marathons in his spare time. This guy was such a bore, it was no wonder Louisa would rather spend time with Will. What was Moyers trying to say by making Will’s foil so obviously physical? That being able-bodied is no guarantee that a person is worth loving? Or that being disabled is so awful that it’s better to be with a boorish personal trainer?

Finally, there was Moyers’s commitment to not giving Louisa the standard happy ending, which I can accept. But why not have Will die of pneumonia after deciding to live for this woman he’d fallen in love with? That would give a sad, ironic ending while showing a disabled character working through emotional issues and choosing to live.

As writers, our job is to tell stories, not send messages. Yet we have an equal responsibility to make sure our characters are fully rounded, and go beyond symbols. While Moyers has no requirement to make any character a hero, she – and all of us – need to create characters that are more than just plot devices. Maybe love isn’t always enough. But if it’s not going to be, the readers need to understand why.

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