No one likes to read about characters living normal lives. Have you ever asked someone about the story they’re reading, and they tell you: “Oh, it’s an amazing story where the hero works a 9-5 job, and the villain is an inept boss. But it’s okay because the hero goes out to the bar with his coworkers for TGIF. And you know how it ends? The hero works there until it’s time to retire. Don’t worry, I heard the author’s writing a sequel about the hero’s epic journey to learn shuffleboard and canasta!”
The reason why you’ll never read that type of story is that no publisher in their right mind will ever spend money to edit it/create a cover for it/or distribute it. Sure, people would read it, but they’d be furious by the ending because nothing crazy happens.
Do you think Peter Parker’s life would be interesting to follow if he was bitten by a normal spider? Would Frodo living in the Shire eating fifty breakfasts each day until he’s old and fat be something you’d be into? What about if Harry Potter was just a muggle orphan being raised by an abusive aunt and uncle?
Ya, I didn’t think so.
There’s a reason why authors are viewed as people with demented and warped minds. We have to torture our heroes…for your enjoyment! If you think about it, you never see books labeled as “torture-free characters” or “free range hero”. I should start a group called People for the Ethical Treatment of Heroes (PETH).
Don’t worry though, people inside books aren’t real people…right?
If it’s any consolation, the protagonists that survive their trauma typically come out of it better for it and have learned a lesson. Notice I’ve used the terms “typically” and “survive”. Because most of the characters that die in the story aren’t the main characters. In Stephen King’s novel Cujo, Donna and her son Tad are trapped in their car by a rabid Saint Bernard named Cujo. Let’s just say only Donna escapes the car alive. It takes several months, but Donna recovers from her rabies treatment and while she hasn’t fully gotten over the traumatic death of her son and the terror caused by the rabid dog, her marriage is still intact. That’s a good thing, right?
If you’ve ever read the Left Behind series, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, you’ll find a great example of torturing your characters but rewarding them at the end.
Janet Fitch said that “the writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Don’t. This is your protagonist, not your kid.”
If you don’t know who Fitch is, don’t worry because neither did I. She’s the author of White Oleander, a book about a 12-year-old girl who grows up in a series of foster homes. The book includes suicide, overdose, eating from the garbage, underage sexual relationships, and other stuff. Fitch also stated that her two favorite authors were Fyodor Dostoevky and Edgar Allan Poe. With all that in mind, I definitely think that Fitch knows about torturing her protagonists.
Fitch is correct. There is a huge difference between how you should treat your children and your characters. One of those differences is, and I would hope would be the most obvious (I can’t believe I have to actually say this) …DON’T TREAT YOUR CHILDREN LIKE YOU WOULD YOUR CHARACTERS.
Let me say that again. Don’t ever treat your children like you would treat your characters. I’m talking especially to the authors that copy Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, Joe Hill, H.P. Lovecraft, and James Patterson. You might be wondering about the Patterson reference. That’s because Patterson often neglects his characters thereby torturing his readers.
With children you should love, nurture, and support. With characters you should do all of those things and then rip everything away and dash all their hopes and dreams, making them fight uphill the entire time so that the happy ending is well deserved. If you do that with children, you’d probably have Child Protective Services knocking on your door.
Going back to characters, remember that there is more than physical torture. Experiment with some emotional or psychological torture. Have your main character choose between the love of his life and the high school crush that cheated on him. Engineer some sort of trap where the character has to use his mental facilities to overcome or else his loved ones fall into a vat of acid.
Diversify with your torture. Go hog wild.
For legal purposes, I have to clarify that while I advocate torturing fictional characters, I do not endorse or support the torture (physical or mental) of a real life person.
Categories: Mastering the Craft