Thursday, March 1, 2012

Am I too nice to my characters? -- writing tip

Question: My writers' group keeps saying I'm "too nice to my characters." What are they talking about? I like my characters and want other people to like them, too. So what's wrong if, on her way to being arrested for a murder she didn't commit, my character goes shopping and buys a dynamite dress? Why shouldn't nice things happen to characters in a story, too? Why shouldn't she be wearing a great dress when the cop who will later be the love interest slaps the handcuffs on her?

Answer: Nice things don't happen to people in stories, because nice things make for boring stories. Stories are about people who meet a challenge, people who strive toward something, people who are in danger of losing whatever they want most. If there's no suspense about the outcome, there's no story.

Instead of what she wears to be arrested in, you might want to concentrate more on what she's thinking and feeling at that moment. Did she know the deceased? Hate him? Wish he was dead, but someone else got to him first? Is she worried about why the cops will think she did it?

That can be hard to do, especially if you like your characters. You want them to be happy. Because of their active imaginations, most writers have lived a rich fantasy life. But fantasies are about happy events. Stories are about bad things happening to good people.

My good friend, Carla Neggers, says that you create a character, then you put them in a big hole and throw dirt in on them. Every time they try to climb out of the hole (solve one problem), you throw more dirt (give them another challenge to meet), until the arrival of what Carla calls the "big gloom" when it appears to your reader that there is no happy solution available to your character at all.

It's a hard fact, but true, that "What's bad for the protagonist is good for the story."

This is hard for all writers. We create our characters and in many ways they are a part of us. It's hard to throw dirt. We want to make everything all right for them. I had a student once who wrote a western story where the heroine was tied to the railroad tracks -- a suspenseful, if trite plot turn. The hero was riding to the rescue. The train was coming. The heroine was screaming. And the train ran out of coal and lost it's head of steam. Then the hero came and untied her. When I asked my student why she had the train run out of coal, she said, "Well, I didn't want it to run over her, in case he didn't get there in time."

But it is the possibility that he won't get there in time that keeps the reader on the edge-of-the-chair and involved in what's happening in your story.

After that, comes the resolution. Either the character will succeed, or not. Either way, the situation is resolved and the story is over.

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