Sunday, September 16, 2007

Loving Your Characters 2

The second biggest problem with loving your characters too much is that you find it hard to make bad things happen to them. I'm forever telling students - raise the stakes! Make your character suffer. Sometimes we do an exercise where I get them to write down the absolute worst thing that could happen to their main character, other than death. They do as I ask, and come up with assault, bankruptcy, betrayal, severe injuries, etc. Then I tell them that they have to try to make that terrible thing happen to the character in their story.

They are usually horrified. And try to find all kinds of reasons why that wouldn't be possible. In fact, for one or two, the catastrophe wouldn't be possible, but for more than 90% it is not only possible but it would give their story the drama and conflict it often needs. I don't force them to do this, of course, but I want to at least raise the idea and let them think about it.

I have the same problem. Many of us do. Our characters cruise too easily through their lives, and the result is low tension levels and a reader who says "so what?" In a middle grade novel I've been rewriting again, one of the things I've struggled with is the knowledge that I don't love my main character. I like her, I like writing about her, but I don't love her. It's caused me problems in terms of moving her close to the reader, and feeling as if I am inside her head (mostly solved by moving into first person), but as it's a suspense/mystery story, I've had no trouble putting her in danger and injuring her!

One of the things I liked in the Deaver novel I read recently (where the main character is Lincoln Rhyme, the paraplegic investigator) was the way in which the other major character, Sachs, was tricked and nearly died as a result. Rhyme's ability to analyse the information in connected crimes saved her. Right up to the last minute, I thought that this time she would die, and this was because the villain seemed invincible. That's the other side of tension - a truly dangerous foe, not a cartoon baddie.


Anonymous said...

I think that I have the opposite problem. Although I love my character, I am putting her through the wringer. I sometimes wonder if I should let up on her?

What do you think about being too hard on a character?

Tracey said...

Amy, I'm just like you. Some of my fantasy writer buds and I talk about how easy it is to be hard on the characters you love -- that the more you love them the more you have to hurt them. My most beloved character is going to be tortured (literally) to within an inch of his life. Do I have qualms? Nope. Sorry. I wish I didn't have to do it to him, but I do, and I will. He's already lived a miserable life, poor fellow. I don't think you can be too hard on a character.

But, Sherryl, yes, I've had students just like yours. One who had no bad things happen in her novel, not one, because she wanted it to be pleasant for everyone. I told her that pleasant is spelt B-O-R-I-N-G, but she took a lot of convincing. If they're not convinced, I get them to talk about their favourite books, the ones that kept them up late at night when they wanted to be sleeping, the ones they couldn't put down, and ask what happened to the major characters in that. Sometimes that works.

Sherryl said...

I don't think you can be too hard on a character, if that's what will make the best story. Sometimes I do see someone who gives their character every possible affliction (and it doesn't seem credible) - it should still fit with the overall story and character arc. More importantly, the disasters should escalate, so you don't have the worst one at the beginning. I get wary about the writer who wants to kill off the main character, because not only is that the end of the story, but it affects tense (you can only tell the story in present tense unless you are doing a Lovely Bones), and it is a huge letdown for the reader. It can have your reader throwing your book across the room!

Tracey said...

And of course that would preclude any chance of a sequel. I want to hurt him -- didn't say I want to kill him. lol