A few weeks ago, my car was hit by another car; mine has been in the body shop ever since. We had water issues in our house this past weekend. I couldn’t sleep last night. The battery in my husband’s car died this morning. You get the picture.
So please forgive me if I cheat a bit today and riff off of a reader question posed to me on another blog, Donna’s Book Pub, during my blog tour for The Last Will of Moira Leahy, about six months ago.
From the Q&A.
Donna asked a batch of questions, and a few readers asked questions in comments as well. This is a question straight out of comments:
(A) manuscript is like a child and that makes me too tender with my characters. I know conflict and flaws are part of a good story, but I love my “people” so much that sometimes I have a hard time letting them endure difficulties or have negative traits. Is there a psychological trick to overcoming this block? Some mindset while writing that allows ME to get out of MY own way as a writer?
Isn’t that a great question? My response:
First, good for you for recognizing that you *may* be standing in the way of your story by coddling those characters. That’s definitely the first step to solving the problem.
Secondly, Blake Snyder–a wonderful man who understood story inside and out, and unfortunately passed away recently–wrote something that I’ll always remember. He said you must draw the arrow of story and character as far back as you can to allow the flight of that arrow the best and strongest path. I’m paraphrasing–perhaps badly–but that was the gist of his message. If you’re only allowing your characters happy times, your book (the arrow) will be meager in scope and could ultimately be unsatisfying to your readers. Don’t be afraid to draw the arrow back. Let your readers feel the tension of your storytelling. Let them marvel as that arrow arcs high in the air. Let them feel the feathers against their cheeks. And then let them cheer when that arrow hits a satisfying mark. Believe me, it’s all the more gratifying when your characters find their happy ending after struggling, just like real people do.
I still believe in that answer (even if I did re-interpret Blake’s original metaphor), but I’d like to add a little something-something to it today.
A little something-something.
Thing is, being easy on our favorite characters is a common problem. We grant them sunshine, puppies, perfect skin, and good sex because we love them. But the trickle-down effect may be that our make-believe folk act as though they marched straight out of Utopia; they say nice things, behave the way we would like people to behave, and have rosy outcomes.
But characters are not people. And being too nice to our characters may be directly and inversely correlated with our ability to sell a novel, or attract a good agent and/or publishing house. Really.
A little specific something-something.
Don’t just toss any old terror at your characters, though; hone in on their personal fears and weaknesses. If your character is struggling to cope with death, consider that someone dear to them may die. If your character is struggling with loneliness, let them be abandoned. If your character wants nothing more than to feel loved, let them experience apathy from the one they love most. If your character strives for acceptance, let her be shunned by those who have the power to hurt her.
Why? Because it will be in those moments, with your characters facing their most testing internal challenges, when you’ll find your best story moments and deliver perhaps your most poignant characterizations.
What’s the worst thing your character could possibly endure? Imagine it, all the way to the end. Now imagine what your character looks like on the other side of that challenge. Most of the time, these characters will not be ruined for the journey. They’ll be stronger. More self-aware. And more memorable for all they’ve overcome. They will be Gandalf, the White; Dorothy after her journey back home; or Scarlett after Rhett no longer gives a damn.
Do you have trouble making your characters suffer, or do you enjoy turning the screws? Please share thoughts and any writerly tricks you may have in comments.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s (The Dream Seeker)