Friday, September 17, 2010

At Their Peril

by Scott Rhoades

Characters enter the fictional worlds of our stories at their own peril. The moment a character finds himself in a story, his life is at risk. At the minimum, his life is about to change and become impossibly difficult, and something vitally important to him is about be shattered.

Often, we writers fall so in love with our characters that we don't want anything bad to happen to them. We want them to be safe and happy. If you feel that way about your character, keep him in your notebook and write about somebody you don't like so much.

Most readers enjoy a happy ending, but we want the characters we read about to suffer on their way to that ending. We want to worry about them. We want to feel anguish. We want the author to tease us, to make us believe there's a chance that our hero will fail, and that he might not even survive.

I recently read a well-known book by a popular middle-grade author who made sure to let the reader know that the lead character was going to be OK. That was disappointing. I wanted to believe he was in jeopardy soon after page 1 until as close to the last page as feasible. Instead, I was left dissatisfied at the end of this classic MG/YA fantasy because I never believed the protagonist was in any danger at all. I almost gave up on the series.

Think of the Harry Potter series. Once J.K. Rowling started killing off characters, we worried about the rest of the characters. As the series progressed, the deaths reached deeper into the characters we cared about, reaching even into the inner circle of important characters. (I'll avoid spoiling it for the two of you who haven't read the series but are thinking you might. The rest of you know exactly what I mean.) Once vital characters started being killed off, we feared for the rest of them. We couldn't even be sure Harry would survive. We figured he would, but Rowling keeps us just off balance enough that we can't be 100% sure. And we loved her for it.

The reader needs to worry, and the reader needs to worry most about the main character and any important secondary characters.

The best way to cause serious hand wringing and steady page turning is often to do in one of those secondary characters, or at least an important tertiary character. so we worry about who else is going to be offed. If you can do in Johnny's best friend, how safe is Johnny?

I've heard so many people say that there should not be deaths in early readers and middle grade novels, and maybe even not in YA books. I disagree. Creating a safe little fictional world might be pleasant, but it robs the reader of the fear and trepidation that so often makes for a good read. Of course, who dies and how the deaths are handled must be age=appropriate.

Even if you choose not to kill off any characters, you've still got to create as much stress and tension as you possibly can. If a character does not physically die, something terrible needs to happen to your protagonist. Something should die within the character, his ideals, his faith, his hopes and dreams, something important, something that means more to him that life or death. He can win it back in the end, but it will never be the same.

Look at The Princess Bride. Westley comes as close to death as a character can come, closer than any other character I've ever read about. His entire story is one of misery, danger, and torture. Buttercup seems to get off a little easier, but does she really? In fact, she suffers a fate that, for her, is worse than death. She has to sacrifice herself and her ideals to marry somebody who is not her True Love. That choice beats her down so much that, once she realizes her True Love can't return to save her, her idealistic world is shattered. Her dreams are destroyed. For her, it's better to be dead than to live without her dreams. She picks up a knife to check herself out of a cruel world where her idealism is meaningless. And this is in a story best known for its humor.

Don't play safe with your characters. Don't keep your characters and your readers comfortable. Change their lives. Make them go through horrible circumstances that grow continually more dire as the story progresses. And don't be afraid to let those dangers prove to be unsurvivable for a major character or two so we worry even more about the main character.

Your readers might hate you until the story is over, but they won't be able to put down the book, and they'll love you in the end.


Julie Daines said...

This was a perfect post for me, as I'm sitting here looking at my main character and thinking to myself, "There's just not enough conflict here. Something REALLY bad needs to happen."

So prepare yourself for something drastic!! :-)

Scott said...

Julie, you've seen what happens to my character. He's lost his only friend (and helper) and his pet. All he had left was a thin strand of hope, and now that looks like it's gone.

Bring on the drastic in your story. Drastic is good.

You know, one of the reasons Douglas Adams gave for having a hard time turning Hitchhiker's Guide into a movie was, when you start with the earth being destroyed, it's hard to make things get any worse. He was worried he couldn't build to something more climactic than his beginning, and knew he had to for a movie to work.

Yamile said...

This post couldn't have come at a better time! I was actually worried that too many bad things happen to my MC. I know. There has to be a balance. Even Harry gets a respite here and there. But I agree. There needs to be enough conflict to keep the readers' interest in the story. Thanks, Scott! And Julie for telling me about this post.

Scott said...

There does need to be a balance. I remember one of those movies about nuclear holocaust back in the nineties. Everything went bad, all the time, with no good, and after while you don't care about the bad anymore. Good stuff has to happen to make the bad stuff seem worse, but every step forward should result in a couple steps back, and going into the climax, it should look hopeless.

Danielle said...

This has always been my biggest struggle. I fall in love with my characters and have trouble doing bad things to them. Thinking of the book as a product helped a bit but it kept me from putting my heart and soul into the book. I think it may help remembering that it all will be okay in the end or do a writing exercise about someone I don't like. Thanks for the post!

Scott said...

I think it's a struggle for most of us, Danielle. But we have to love the readers as much or more than our characters.

Giving your characters intense and truly dangerous struggles, including possibly losing a friend or helper, makes the reader worry, which leads to caring more deeply about the character. And, you'll be really proud of your character if she's able to overcome these terrible things and grow as a person.