Tuesday, October 15, 2013

on putting your characters through the wringer

My sister was helping me sew over the weekend and at one point she glances at me and says, "What are you smirking about?"

"Oh, just imagining the horrible things I'm going to do to my characters in the last third of the book."
And my sister just nodded, because she's used to this kind of thing from me.

My writing teachers used to remark on how dark my fiction was and I'd say, "Nobody's allowed to be happy in my stories." And they'd say, in some variation, "You'll grow out of that."

Which is supercilious hogwash, of course, and the root of why I discourage beginning writers from taking creative fiction writing courses. Because any creative writing teacher who pooh-poohs character angst is clearly lacking a grasp of what makes for good story, and unfortunately I have encountered this attitude in four of the four creative writing instructors I have had.

I got about 30% of the way into Trace Book Three this summer before I had to put it down for Book One revisions and the Halloween rush. The last batch of pages I took to my writer's group got a terrific compliment from my buddy Rob, who said, "I have no idea how this will end. I'm not even sure it will have a happy ending."

And that's a great thing, because it means A, he's genuinely involved with the characters and B, the challenges they face are not minor or superficial. I haven't set up a paper-tiger conflict, in other words. 

I was just reading this interview with Joss Whedon and he says, among other things: "We try to build the story organically and go, 'How hard can we make it on these people?' You go to movies to see people you love suffer—that’s why you go to the movies."

(And of course Joss Whedon is still one of my heroes. Even though Agents of SHIELD is kind of lame. Maybe because we haven't gotten to the suffering yet. It took six episodes of Dollhouse before he really dropped the boom on us.)

I learned a lot from Whedon; particularly Season Two of Buffy when Angel went evil and killed Jenny Calendar and we realized this show wasn't fucking around--Whedon could and would put his characters and his viewers through the wringer. Whedon has famously said, "I don't give the fans what they want, I give them what they need," and what fans need is a reason to keep tuning in.

So I'm putting the screws to Trace at least once in each book. In fact I'm thinking Book Three will be titled The Trials of Jacob Tracy. And I wish to God Halloween was over so I could get back to it. Ah well, back to the sewing machine.


AJ Milne said...

I've been rewatching Buffy again (on Netflix), last few weeks, first time in many years. Got to thinking it was time/wanted to fill in any gaps in stuff I missed, back when it ran. Got my daughter into it, too, and now I'm catching up to her.

And yeah, it's really well-done drama. It's funny going back over it, seeing the bits of raw in set and acting in the earlier episodes, as the actors settle into their roles, production starts to click. But from the very beginning, against this, there's this wiriness about the whole thing, steady as a rock, premiere to last scene. Whedon's always had this taut quality, in plotting, especially; doesn't waste time getting through meat to bone, making things hurt.

I almost wonder if the Buffyspeak was a helpful bit of aesthetics, given this; it put a bit of a smirk around it, so you could cope with the fact that actually, shit starts pretty real, and just keeps getting more real, steadily, inexorably through the whole thing.

And as to the 'you'll grow out of it' thing, umm... what? Most of the fiction worth reading is pretty much chock full of miserable people; hardly matters which genre. You need drama to drive things, and happy people aren't especially dramatic. Now and then you might let them get happy at the end, but that's just the point: it's the end. You know, Mr. or Mrs. Writing Teacher--that bit people generally stop reading at? Which, see, is the only reason it becomes at all practical to let them have a break from the misery there. And note also that standard literary canon figure Shakespeare didn't quite insist, either. Everyone who actually mattered pretty much dead by the final scene? Fine. Consider it done. Sez 'tragedy' right in the card catalogue; what the hell were you expecting? He hadn't grown out of it with any hurry either, far as I notice.

Anyway. It's very good to see things are building to another book or two, and promptly. Hereby adding to reading lists.

Holly said...

>>the Buffyspeak was a helpful bit of aesthetics

(Did you maybe mean "anesthetic?" Works either way.)

I think you are right about lightening the mood to make the bad stuff bearable. I think also, including the comedy and the normal, bright parts of life serves to A) provide contrast to the darkness, which gives it that much more impact, and B) remind us of the stakes our heroes fight to preserve.

So many action/horror stories just lean on the grim/dark/slash/shock buttons so hard that it all becomes numbing, almost academic. Providing contrast helps us care about the characters, which ups the stakes. (She said redundantly.)

Good to hear from you, AJ. Book is coming out in June, we think. And, I still have that first bit of fan mail you sent me through Critters all those years ago. One dry, intelligent affirmation is worth a good deal more than squee and gush.

AJ Milne said...

Heh. It was aesthetics, but good point. Does work the other way too.

And it's really nice to hear that. Both the book coming, and the thing after.