If you’ve been reading my blog for a while now, you’ll be no stranger to the fact that reading the Lymond Chronicles changed the way I read, and write and think and – okay, look, it changed my life.
One of the many, many things it made clear to me was that withholding emotional catharsis is a powerful tool. That’s a whole post in itself, but a subset of it is turning “I love you” – which should be a moment of recognition and completion and, yes, catharsis – into something unpleasant.
In Lymond it takes this form: We spend five books following painfully after Lymond, the man who simply cannot lose control, ever, and at the end of book five we finally see him fall in love. (Here‘s another post I wrote about how spectacular it was to watch Lymond fall in love.)
This, finally, seems like the one condition under which he can let go – and after five books, the tension in him is unbearable. We spend most of book six watching he and Philippa go through a painful dance around each other. At this point, it’s a delicious kind of pain. They yearn for each other, and they cannot have each other, and for whatever reason it’s a state that’s so much more enjoyable in literature than in real life.
Then Philippa realises how Lymond feels, and she pushes him. It is so obvious to her, that this means they can be together. As the reader, we’re egging her on. Push him! Push him until he has to let go! But, stunningly, when she pushes him until he’s completely bare to her it only makes things between them worse.
I just want to highlight how amazing this is. You have two characters, and you strip away every external hindrance to them being together, and you strip away any misunderstanding between them – and they are still complex enough to resist catharsis.
It’s also a huge, unforeseeable blow to the reader, who has been conditioned by all other fiction to expect catharsis when every defence is torn down.
Oh, and it gets worse.
Because of circumstances outside of Lymond’s control, he and Philippa end up together. They go to the French countryside, and ensconce themselves in his estate. At this point every other character is shut out – as is the reader. We hear the gossip that other characters hear – and when those characters finally lose out to curiosity and go to visit Lymond and Philippa, we see what they see.
It’s kind of like a horror show, at the very moment everyone’s finally gotten what they wanted.
Lymond and Philippa are of one mind – they communicate without speech, they are always, always with each other. But they never touch. And they hardly speak. And there is something indefinably, totally wrong.
Another blow to the chest.
Another great example of the awful I love you: In the Buffy episode ‘Lie To Me’, Buffy has seen Angel hanging around the evil vampire Drusilla. When she finally confronts him about it, the conversation is angry – it’s about not knowing who to trust, and the lies people tell each other.
Out of nowhere Angel asks Buffy, “Do you love me?” It’s the first time the question’s been raised between them, and it’s not tender or careful. Angel asks it, because he needs to know where they stand before he tells Buffy about the worst atrocity he ever committed: driving an innocent girl mad by killing her family one by one, then turning her into a vampire (Drusilla).
An admission of love makes a person about as vulnerable as they can be. You can love someone as much as you like, in secret – but it’s the speaking of it that changes things. So as a writer, that moment is a potent tool.
In these examples it hasn’t simply been used to make someone look a bit villainous, or heartless. That wouldn’t impress me. It makes someone the most vulnerable they can be, and it uses that fact to twist a knife in the reader.