As readers, many of us seem appalled when our favorite characters suffer at the hands of their authors; when they get killed off, harmed, or traumatized, we close the book with a frown and think, “Why can’t the authors just leave them alone?” Or, perhaps, we chuck the volume across the room, emotionally, and write a scathing, one-star review. But let me share an insight, as a writer who’s had to do it: it hurts us, too.
In my fantasy series (in progress), one of my characters has an encounter with a very unpleasant villain, and things don’t turn out well. What happens (and, just in case some of my beta readers read this, I can’t say what happens) forever alters the series, and the relationships in it. It’s a big deal, and it’s supposed to be—it’s one of the major plot points. But it isn’t easy to write.
I’ve been putting it off, and putting it off, and dragging my heels, because every page I write, at this point, brings me that much closer. I’ve even decided to stop for a little and work on another project entirely, just to give myself a breather, because I’m not looking forward to writing violence. Even though I’m planning on doing a mixture of offstage violence and third person limited close exposure, it’s still going to have a modicum of roughness. It’s violent, and it’s a big deal. I can’t just say “and such-and-such happened” and move on from there.
I’m not saying all writers are like this. There may be some that enjoy putting their characters through trauma—enjoy the power of controlling events, of not being the one’s hurting, etc.—but my guess is, most of us would far, far rather make our characters happy all the time. That’s why we have to remind ourselves to “be cruel,” to put our favorites “through the fire,” even when we know they may not make it out on the other side. Because their choices take them there, to that brink, and we have to let them jump in and sink or swim on their own merits. To reach out a hand and save them would be false. We aren’t in the story, and we can’t help them. We can only record what happens.
And to make a land bridge over the chasm would be horribly wrong, even if it would keep them from a scorching, for it would remove all chance of consequences. We’d become their fairy godmothers instead of their authors, writing not their lives but their dreams, and they’d never get to be human (or as close as possible), because we’d always be there to save them from anything unpleasant. They’d be caged beings, surrounded by safe, padded walls, and any individuality—any personality they had—would slowly drain out of them in the safety of their fictitious lives.
But all the same, it is a very hard thing to do. Facing the trauma with our characters, knowing exactly what happens even if we don’t write it all out…and worse, knowing that something horrible is about to happen, even as the character who will face it enjoys herself, blissfully ignorant, isn’t easy. Because our characters are part of us, when we make them go through something, pieces of ourselves are traumatized, hurt, and grieving right there with them.
But we can’t turn aside, not even if we want to. It’d be false to them, to their story, and to the art we are trying to create. It takes great insight to see where a story must go, but it takes great courage to go there.
Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren Photo courtesy of Gratisograpy