At our regular Thursday night NaNoWriMo write-in, one of our participants started asking questions about horses. This led to her confessing that she felt bad for her main character, and was trying to throw her a bone.
When you start to feel bad for your main character, be meaner. Because here’s the deal–I’m going to share some epic writer secrets with you guys.
Without pain, there is no conflict.
Without conflict, there is no growth.
Without growth, there is no story.
That’s it. There’s your golden goose egg of How It’s Done. The difficulty, of course, comes in the execution, in the language, in the evocation of pathos, in the feeling of connection that the reader must have with the protagonist. No one wants to read a book about a guy who’s having a nice day. We want to read a book about a guy who’s having a nice day until the subway he’s waiting for to take him to work has been hijacked by ninja monkeys who are holding his girlfriend and his grandmother hostage, and he’s got to figure out a way to save them both, punish the monkeys, and get to work on time. That’s a story.
No one writes a comic book about Peter Parker snuggling with MJ on the couch and watching The Notebook. They write comic books about Venom kidnapping MJ and Aunt May and forcing him to choose between the two. And, you know, possibly forcing him to watch The Notebook while he’s trying to figure out what to do. Now that’s mean.
Writers ruin fictional lives. It’s what we do. Deal with it.
The meaner we are to our characters, the more impossible situations we put them in (and then, of course, giggle while they try to work their way out of them, sometimes failing), the more they grow as people and the more interesting they are to watch.
An easy way of achieving this–if you don’t write alarmingly violent books like I do–is mentioning something up front in the narrative that your main character Would Never Do. Then, of course, you make them do it. That? That’s the black moment. That’s the point at which your character is at their lowest, where they have to make their hardest decision, where they scrape off that awful pupa and emerge as a beautiful butterfly. Or something. It’s usually followed by a metric fuckton of rationalization.
WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS.
Harry Dresden kills the mother of his child in order to rid the world of Red Court vampires. (Changes, Dresden Files #12 by Jim Butcher)
Though she is a protector of the innocent, Jill Kismet knowingly kills an innocent during a firefight. (Heaven’s Spite, Jill Kismet #5 by Lilith Saintcrow)
The Doctor, knowing that Rose will get to spend the rest of her life with the alternate-dimension version of himself, gives her up because her happiness means more to him than his own. (Doctor Who, “Doomsday” by Russell T. Davies)
Miriam Black gives up on Louis, the only person who never gave up on her. (Mockingbird, Miriam Black #2 by Chuck Wendig)
Nora Sutherlin gives Wesley Railey up because she thinks she’ll never be able to give him what he wants and needs, nor will he ever be able to give her what she wants and needs. (The Siren, Original Sinners #1 by Tiffany Reisz)
The list. It goes on forever. Because that’s what makes a good story. You get that nail-biting, gut-wrenching moment of decision, that point at which your breath sticks in your throat because you can’t believe he might OH MY GOD HE DID NOT.
That’s the thing you want. That’s the thing you’re shooting for. Abuse them, shoot them, stab them, break their hearts, abandon them to harsh landscapes, kill their best friend in a freak mattress accident. Kick them when they are down.
We want to read about someone’s triumph, someone’s hero story, someone overcoming the odds to come out on top of an impossibly terrible situation. That’s why Raymond Chandler’s advice to send in a man with a gun is so good–because someone might get shot.
You want to be nice? Go work at a soup kitchen.