We’ve all heard that characters have to be unique, larger-than-life; that they must possess a unique quality that makes them jump off the page. In addition to this, however, something bad must happen to them. This is the essential literary skill is called jeopardy.
Physical and Emotional Jeopardy in Writing
Physical jeopardy is simple and creates an immediate, but superficial interest. Will the character escape the jaws of the crocodile? Read on and find out. Emotional jeopardy is a more complicated affair and builds through a complex narrative. Emotional jeopardy opens the reader to a character’s soul and suffering. The emotional jeopardy of a story is its heart, and focusing on it will automatically arrange your story around serious themes that compel your reader’s interest.
Emotional Jeopardy in The Kite Runner
Critically acclaimed “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini is full of such emotional jeopardy. It is the tale of two friends, Amir, a Pashtun and Hassan, a Hussar. Growing up in Afghanistan in the 1970’s, they contend with a class divide and a complex friendship that must navigate the roles of master and servant. Through it all, Amir is tormented by feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy mostly relating to his friend Hassan, but also to his father, Baba, an athletic, assertive man who is nothing like Amir. In the following scene, Amir listens secretly as Baba and Baba’s best friend Rahim Khan talk about him.
“I know, know. But he’s always buried in those books or shuffling around the house like he’s lost in some dream.”
“I wasn’t like that.” Baba sounded frustrated, almost angry.
Rahim Khan laughed. “Children aren’t coloring books. You don’t get to fill them with your favorite colors.”
I heard the leather of Baba’s seat creaking as he shifted on it. I closed my eyes, pressed my ear even harder against the door, wanting to hear, not wanting to hear. “Sometimes I look out this window and I see him playing on the street with the neighborhood boys. I see how they push him around, take his toys from him, give him a shove here, a whack there. And, you know, he never fights back. Never. He just… drops his head and…”
“So he’s not violent,” Rahim Khan said.
“That’s not what I mean, Rahim, and you know it,” Baba shot back. “There is something missing in that boy.”
The conversation continues while Amir listens, dispirited. What could be worse than eavesdropping on one of your parents and hearing that they think there is something missing in you?
Jeopardy and a Theme of Pathos
Emotional jeopardy must be a complex revelation of a character’s emotional and spiritual suffering over the course of a narrative. By necessity, emotional jeopardy, whatever form it may take, becomes a theme. In “The Kite Runner,” we see Amir’s sense of paternal estrangement resurface when he and Hassan are reading the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a tale about a father who kills his a boy whom he finds out is his son.
Hassan is always moved to tears by the scene wherein Rostam discovers that Sohrab is his son. He gets Amir to read it to him over and over again, always crying at the same place, his friend never knowing whether he cries for the anguished father or the dying son. Amir has a different emotional response to the story:
“Personally I couldn’t see the tragedy in Rostam’s fate. After all, didn’t all fathers in their secret hearts harbor a desire to kill their sons?”
It is just one of Amir’s fleeting thoughts in this scene. It could read “Doesn’t my dad want to kill me?” The main job of this particular scene is establishing the relationship between Amir and Hassan, but the inclusion of this reflection gives the reader the sense that Amir’s sense of his father’s loathing for him is always in his thoughts.
Finally, I’ll include a particularly heart-rending scene that occurs when Amir writes his first short story: a story he is particularly proud of.
“‘What is it, Amir?’ Baba said, reclining on the sofa and lacing his hands behind his head. Blue smoke swirled around his face. His glare made my throat feel dry. I cleared it and told him I’d written a story.
Baba nodded and gave a thin smile that conveyed little more than feigned interest. “Well, that’s very good, isn’t it?” he said. Then nothing more. He just looked at me through the cloud of smoke.
After an interminable moment when father and son face each other saying nothing. Rahim Khan rescues Amir from embarrassment by offering to read the story.
“”Baba shrugged and stood up. He looked relieved, as if he too had been rescued by Rahim Khan. ‘Yes, give it to Kaka Rahim. I’m going upstairs to get ready.’ And with that, he left the room. Most days I worshipped Baba with an intensity approaching the religious. But right then, I wished I could open my veins and drain his cursed blood from my body.”
It would take a heart of stone to ignore Amir’s emotional pain, an emotional pain that builds and builds as the story continues. In this passage, he talks of opening his veins, an act simulaneously of self-harm and of hatred, a purging of his very relation to his father. Needless to say passages like this are poignant enough to cause us to examine our own parental relationships and give us a real reason to continue reading.
The Kite Runner is one of the greatest novels in modern literature. One of its particular successes is the intensely emotional character arc of the story’s protagonist, Amir. I’ve detailed some moments that relate to this topic, but in fact the whole story is replete with emotional plot developments building to an unparalleled cathartic apex. Amir’s very relatable unhappiness is what keeps the reader interested. Not coincidentally, it is also what adds the depth and feeling that make “The Kite Runner” an affecting and potentially life-changing story.