Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Putting Characters Through the Wringer

Not too long ago, I had a discussion with a fellow writer about putting our much loved characters through difficult situations. My friend was having trouble with her story, and her critiquers all said the same thing: the MC had very little growth, and the things she learned seemed contrived.

So I read the story, and I, too, felt the same way. On top of that, I had no sympathy for the main character, but I couldn't clearly see why. So I read it again, made some notes, asked some questions, and then it hit me. The MC had life way, way too easy. Sure, bad things happened to her, but they weren't that bad. This made her seem whiny and weak, because if she can't deal with this, then there's no way she can deal with real problems.

I told this to my friend, and she was on the verge of tears at the idea of putting her MC through anything worse. But, in the end, that's what she did, and her story was much better for it.

That got me thinking about my characters. I have no problem with throwing them off a cliff with nothing but a shoestring to climb back up. And that bothered me. I mean, what does that say about me? How could I be so willing to do this? I lay in bed that night thinking about it, wondering if I was really a bad person and just didn't know it.

Then it hit me. When I was in high school, I was presented with this question: "If you had the power to change anything about your life, what would you change?" My immediate response was "that's easy, I'd change this, this, this...." Then I started thinking about how each of those incidents affected me as a person. If they were taken away, I might not be the person I am today.

But I like who I've become. I think I have a unique perspective, and would really hate to lose that. So, I changed my mind. I wouldn't change those things. In fact, the only things I would change are so small that, in the grand scheme of things, it wouldn't matter if they stayed where they were. This revelation was a turning point in my life, and put me on the road to accepting who I am as a whole, complete, person.

Our experiences help to make us who we are. Who we become. The same thing happens to a main character. So if we don't do anything to her, then how can she grow and change? She can't. Then, not only do you have no story, but you have a character that no one loves. If you really want to see how your MC can change or grow, then find out what she loves the most. And then take it from her. You can bet she won't be happy about that, and she might surprise you in how she reacts.

I want my characters to grow in unimaginable ways. I cry when I think of what they can become. But in order to do that, I have to put them through the wringer, many times, then throw them overboard. So I guess that means I love them...in a bizzare, twisted way. (gulp) Sheesh.


liquidambar said...

This is a not uncommon flaw in writers (and one I have to watch out for myself); one of my teachers called it "protecting your character." But without conflict, there's no story.

Tabitha said...

Exactly. I think real conflict is harder to recognize than most writers think, for the reason you just mentioned. :)

beth said...

I absolutely agree: make life miserable for your characters. A book NEEDS extreme situations!

Bish Denham said...

Good stuff. We all need to be reminded that it's the hard times that make us strong.

Angela said...

It's okay to make your characters suffer. Repeat after me: suffering is good!

*jabs cattle prod at characters*

Dance, Sweetlings! Dance for Momma!


It is important to note that some people can go overboard with the suffering/throwing abstacles at their characters. Too much and you get an unrealistic circumstance that hollows your plot and the character arc...unless the arc is to show them as a blubbering basketcase by the end of the book.

Like anything, balance is the key. Make the complications count--quality over quantity and all that.

Tabitha said...

Beth - yep yep yep. Readers aren't interested in every day type of things. They want to read about things that they hope never happens to themselves, which means taking things to the extreme. :)

Bish - hard times most definitely make us strong. That which does not kill us, makes us stronger. :) There's no reason that can't apply to fictional characters as well. :)

Angela - exactamundo. Too much of one thing can ruin your taste for it. I did that with shrimp once...it wasn't pretty. X(

Mary Witzl said...

I completely agree with you: an insipid character whose life is easy and pleasant is not someone you feel much sympathy for. This is one of the reasons Harry Potter caught on so well: automatically, you are going to care about a kid who is treated so badly but still manages to keep his spirits up.

I remember reading that all great writers with no notable exceptions have had difficult childhoods or adolescence. There is something about triumphing over suffering that gives one's writing depth, so it only stands to reason that it makes for a more sympathetic, compelling protagonist as well.

Tabitha said...

I definitely agree about Harry Potter.

I think I've read the same thing about great writers, and I always wondered just *how* troubled their childhoods were. Probably ten times worse than mine. :)

Shari said...

I guess that means I love them...in a bizzare, twisted way.
We writers are an odd lot. ;-)

Great post. Thanks!

Shari, from the blueboards

Tabitha said...

Thanks! And great to see a fellow blueboarder! :)

Sorry it took me so long to respond...just got over a horrid stomach flu.

Gargantua said...

I sometimes wonder if this desire to "protect your character" extends to characterization as well. The most interesting characters have flaws, after all, and when we make a character "perfect" we have really shortchanged the story.

Tabitha said...

Exactly. We've also created unrealistic characters, because nobody's perfect. Hence, no one can relate to someone who's perfect and they probably won't like the story. :)