Recently I had a minor naval gazing dilemma stroke drama. I was reading other writers’ work and bemoaning what I saw as the vast echoing chasm of difference between how they tortured their characters and I torture mine. Because, let’s face it, we’re supposed to kick holy hell out of our characters… as well as the eponymous seven shades of crapola and a bucket of beans. And damn me if I didn’t feel like I might be being *gasp* a little soft.
I’m not a nice person. I have this twisted, horrendous, bottom-dragging imagination. I admit it, there are times I’ll write a scene and think to myself ‘girl, that just ain’t right’. But here I was suddenly caught up in the absolute certainty that I was playing like a glitter and pink drenched Pollyanna in a kitten factory when it came to my character’s lives.
It’s not a small issue, this, no indeed. There are things that just won’t be possible if you don’t brutalise that poor character of yours. You’ll never mine the salty, raddled depths of their id if you don’t force them to ride naked through a heaving cacophony of pure hell with ‘I dare you to prong me, bitch’ tattooed on their forehead. You’ll have no conflict, no tension, no emotional impact. In other words, you’ll have no mother-chuffing story, just a flat, lifeless hank of unlikely dross-prose.
You can imagine then the sheer force of the ‘oh shit’ tsunami savaging my introspectively focused brain. In layman’s term: I shat a brick. I dragged out everything I’ve ever written. Thankfully this is not much as I *lost* all that terrible shite I wrote in my teens and anything since that’s frankly embarrassed me to the point of running away to live under an assumed identity in the Arizona desert.
So, there I sit, all this collected work lined up on the screen before my shuddering, slightly watery eyes and I go through it with the proverbial toothcomb. Heart pounding, stomach doing a fairly good impression of that elephant you shoved off a tall building. And here is what I discovered. *clears throat* I am an absolute goddamned sadistic brutal heartless scheming conniving cold savage daughter of a bloodthirsty tyrant.
You can imagine my relief.
See, it’s not only important that our characters are accessible, that we make the reader feel something for them, be it empathy, disdain, loathing, adoration or various other gut-level responses of varying degrees of nicety or nastiness (I am not a fan of consistently sympathetic characters – I’ll blog that out further at some point as I’ve a fairly large spleen over it). Because we’ve gotta provoke that gut response, haven’t we, gotta hook ‘em, reel ‘em in and have them flapping about in our hands, helpless and gasping for oxygen. But we also have to make them cringe for those characters, whether they like them or not.
We have to make them do that thing people do when they watch those videos of people falling off skateboards at speed, or crashing cars, or the pranks/stunts that go disastrously wrong. That ‘Oooh!’ followed by the delighted lean toward the screen as if they just cannot wait to see if there’s blood, or even better, guts. Dammit we’re a bloodthirsty lot, a pack of low down primitives who, whilst we yearn to feel a connection with the characters in stories, also want to revel in their pain, roll in their misery and lean in close to peruse the carnage of their assassination.
You gotta bring that pain, bring it hard, horrendous and full on… make the reader cringe, wince, pucker up their mouths and go ‘Oooh’. Then, when you’ve done that to the point where they’re reading from between their fingers behind a cushion with years of psycho-therapy ahead of them to iron out the mind-trauma, make sure that somehow, some way, poor old Johnny or Jane character comes out the other end mostly intact, having learnt some serious lesson or other or gained some precious nugget of truth. Because the one thing people hate more than nothing happening is failure to climax… no one likes to be left dissatisfied, people have killed for a lack of the la petit mort after the big O kahuna.
So ride ‘em hard, make ’em squeal like the proverbial hog on a rope and leave ‘em soaking wet… and smiling through the tears.