Friday, February 17, 2012

Putting Your Characters Through Hell

I am a big fan of suspense in writing and I’ve noticed something about both films and writing – if you know there are boundaries across which the author (or director) will not cross, the work loses an important element of suspense. I like it when those invisible boundaries get crossed.

This struck me when I watched, of all things, the 1988 version of The Blob – a monster movie I liked more than (apparently) most folks did. I liked it because there were a number of characters who you just knew weren’t going to get eaten – the little kid, the sheriff, the waitress – who got eaten! Some had story lines which you knew had to play out – but didn’t. Some were just off-limits. (Good little kids don’t get eaten, right?) So by half-way through the film, I had no idea who was and who was not going to make it. Usually in these things you not only know who lives and who dies, you know pretty much the order in which they’re going to go down. What did this have that those others lacked?


I’m not a fan of gratuitous violence, or crossing lines just to do it. But if, as a story teller, you find yourself in a situation where logic dictates a result which is off-limits, and you’re struggling with how to jiggle reality so that a “safer” outcome results, you need to stop for a moment and consider crossing that line into dangerous territory.

If there are things your readers know – just know – you will never let happen to a character, you may need to remind yourself who the story teller is. Your characters confront enormously dangerous situations – whether physically dangerous or emotionally dangerous depends on your subject -- but if the character does not have a lot at stake, maybe everything, then you probably are not telling the right story. You want your characters to be frightened by the possibility of disaster, and to communicate that fear to your readers. But if your readers know nothing really bad will happen, they cannot share the fear of your characters, and you end up isolating the one from the other.

The only way your readers can share the fear of your characters is if your readers believe you might really pull that trigger. And the only way they will believe that is if you are yourself actually willing to pull it, because it’s pretty hard to fool readers about stuff like that. Sometimes that means putting your characters through hell, through their worst nightmares, through the realization of their absolute worst fears. Sometimes you have to put them right in the belly of the whale to see what they’re really made of.

Doing so is scary, because there is always the fear your readers will hate you for what you are doing to the characters they have (we hope) come to love. But as General George S. Patton says numerous times in his memoir War As I Knew It, “I had to remind myself not to take counsel of my fears.”


In somewhat related news, Andy tells me the cover is almost done for A Prince of Mars. The text is all ready to go, so as soon as the cover corrections are finished my first novella will go live, probably early next week. Very exciting! Did I have the strength of my convictions about testing my characters in the belly of the whale? Well, only one way to find out.

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