Monday, June 8, 2009

The Pain of Being My Characters - Take Two

Quote of the Day:
I would never write about a character who is not at the end of his rope.
~ Stanley Elkin

Okay dear readers, this week I am madly trying to get my almost-so-close-but-not-quite-WIP finished. Basically, it is done minus a couple transition scenes and the very end - and typing it of course :D I've got about 20k of it typed and the goal is to finish it this week. So, I hope you will forgive me, but I have delved into my archives and pulled out a couple favorite posts from my Blog Chain. As most of you joined me long after these were written, hopefully this is new stuff for you to read :)

Leah Clifford had picked this particular topic, and it is one I have been thinking about lately as my crit buddies have begun to sink their pens into my new book. Sometimes I have a hard time being mean to my characters - but this time around, I really tried to be the big, mean author :)

Leah asked: What do you do to amp up the conflict? What pins do you stick in the little voodoo dolls? How do you torture your characters???

Okay, when I first read this topic, I thought, “Oooo, yeah, I torture my characters all the time! This will be easy!”

Upon thinking about it more, I don’t think I do this on purpose (most of the time). But it tends to be the drama, the conflict, that drives a story…and you just can’t get that if your characters get everything they want and are happy all the time.

So how do I amp up the conflict, torture my characters? Well, in Treasured Lies, my main character Minuette falls in love, thinks her love might be a horrible criminal, watches her love get shot and thinks he bleeds to death, suffers a miscarriage, is told her love didn’t really love her and because of what has happened, believes it and gets her heart broken, and then just when things start looking up, the crazy villain comes and kidnaps her, beats her, and tries to kill and rape her. Is that torture enough? :D

A wise friend of mine once told me that if I ever get stuck (writer’s block) to just shoot someone. I laughed. And then realized that shooting someone was the perfect answer to the problem I had created for myself. I had written myself into a corner. All conflicts had been resolved and I had nowhere to go and I still had half a book left to write. So someone got shot – instant conflict, instant torture for several characters – instant end to writer’s block.

Looking at the quote of the day by Stanley Elkin, it is such a great piece of advice…a person at the end of their rope has no where to go but up….but there is always the threat of crashing down…and that makes a great story. If your characters never go through any kind of conflict or “torture,” then you have a story in which nothing happens. A happy person who has everything they want, and continues to be happy with everything they want…Where is the story in that?

Ernest Hemingway said that a writer should…“find what gave you emotion; what the action was that gave you excitement.”

I LOVE that quote. And it made me think, “What is it that gave me emotion? What gave me excitement?” Sure, I am happy when a character gets the guy at the end, or finds the treasure, or gets to live in the big pretty castle and lives happily ever after. But that isn’t what keeps me reading the story. What keeps me reading, what gives me goosebumps and makes my heart pound, is when the heroine cradles her dying husband in her arms…when she is on the back of a thundering horse, shooting a gun over her shoulder at the villain chasing her….when she made some stupid mistake and screwed up the good thing she had going….THAT kind of stuff makes me want to turn the page.

Did the husband really die? Will she get away? (Or will the retort of the gun knock her on her butt?…because that is always fun) :D Will she be able to fix her mistake and get the good thing going again, or has she just completely screwed up her life?

So, that is what I do to my characters. I try to give the reader a reason to turn the page, by giving my characters a reason to keep going, giving them something to fix, to resolve, to get over and move past. Death, pain, despair, torture, emotion, threat, danger….these all get the blood pumping, the tears pouring…and make that happy ending all the happier for the mess they had to go through to get there.


Litgirl01 said...

That cartoon/pic is hillarious!!!

Scott said...

First - have you heard of Livescribe? It's a handy-dandy digital pen and notebooks. You write in the notebook, can actual record comments as you write, and then a software program uploads everything to computer program, which can then be saved as a Word document. So, all your notebooks can easily be transfered into Word docs. This doesn't transfer your writing to text, but it does store it in file format. I bought one last year and absolutely love the fact that my handwritten notes can be stored as Word documents. : )

Second - I'm with you on the conflict. I always start with a conflict and then pile it on as the story progresses so that my characters grow, rather than stagnant in the Lake of Happily Ever After. Okay, so there's really not a lake by that name. Life - real and imagined - is about conflict. We (and our characters as well) hopefully learn from the past and the decisions we(they) made. So, you need that shooting, that bad love affair, that trust in the wrong person, so your characters will grow . . . and so your readers will keep turning the pages.

I also like to see the subtle changes in the characters as they learn from their mistakes. I had a couple of characters realize that they were placing too much emphasis on happiness, their perception of happiness, and had them walk away from a good situation for the chance of a better situation. : )


Michelle McLean said...

I haven't heard of Livescribe, but I'll have to check it out! Thanks :) I think I'd like to get one of those mini notebook laptops - it would do everything I need it to and it's fairly cheap - if I ever get a couple extra hundred bucks that is :D

Eric said...

Great post. And thanks for something else - you just gave me an idea for where I need to go in my short story (not a shooting, but anyway).

Iapetus999 said...

I think not only do you have to torture your characters, you also need to make them completely incompetent to deal with issues (at the beginning). Just having "bad stuff happen" isn't enough. You have to throw in into situations they can't possibly deal with. Like parenthood. Or the Army. Or the Titanic. Then watch your characters struggle but then grow.
Then if all else fails, kill off a character.

Candance Vandermark said...

Hey, Michelle, thank you for being my second follower on my brand new blog! Yeah!

I have an Asus eee that cost about 300.00. Let me tell you, they are great for writers! I love mine to pieces, as long as it doesn't fall into pieced. I take it everywhere I go and just keep it in my purse (though I must confess that I do carry a rather large purse). But you are definitely right, it will do all that you need. Only issue I am having right now is downloading drivers for my printer. No CD Drive...hmmmmmm....


Michelle McLean said...

Eric - yay! glad I could provide a little inspiration :D

lapetus - LOL killing them off always works ;-D And you are right...if they are up to the challenge from the get-go it can get a little boring. It makes a better story if you can see them struggle and grow from their challenges.

Candance - I carry a very large purse also :D so it would probably be perfect for me! I'll definitely have to look into it, thanks! :)

Anonymous said...

Wow thank you very much for the advice. It's got my head full of ideas. :)