In a writing forum I follow, a fledgling author recently confessed she finds it hard to let bad things happen to her protagonist. Have you ever felt that way? We authors put a lot of ourselves into our characters. We can’t help wanting things to go well for them. And yet we know that conflict and adversity are the lifeblood of fiction, especially crime fiction. Nice people trying to be helpful (add in some puppies) is deadly dull.
When plotting a story, writers are often advised to ask: What’s the worst thing that can happen here? Make it happen. And then make it worse.
Recently I participated in a panel discussion on writing a series, sponsored by Buckeye Crime Writers, the central Ohio chapter of Sisters in Crime. One of my fellow panelists, Eileen Curley Hammond, writes the Merry March Mysteries, a cozy mystery series featuring a small-town insurance professional. Eileen said this:
Our characters lead exciting lives. And unless they were babies at the start of the book, they all have backstories. When I was developing the character of Merry March, I wanted her to have a teenage daughter [lots of opportunities for conflict right there!]. That meant there had to have been a man in Merry’s past. I thought about making her a widow, but then I saw a webcast in which the speaker encouraged attendees to up the ante on their characters—to make whatever bad situation they were in that much worse. So I decided that Merry had an ex-husband, Drew March. Divorce wasn’t nasty enough, though. So I decided Drew would be a conman who’d swindled most of the people in their small town. And in the first book, Murder So Sinful, Drew would be serving a sentence in prison. This provided a lot of fodder for the next five books.
So why is making life easy for our protagonist a temptation, especially for new writers? I think there are two reasons. First, we enjoy living vicariously through them. What happens to them happens to us—in our fantasies. Second, we want our protagonists to be awesome. But if awesome equals perfect, we’re on the wrong track. Perfect people aren’t believable, and even if they were, we probably wouldn’t like them. [Click here to read my recent blog on creating characters, “Faults, Flaws, Fears & Failings: Why We Love Troubled Characters.”]
One final caveat: making our protagonists suffer must serve a purpose—either to reveal character or to advance the plot. Introducing adverse circumstances for the sake of it won’t do. Here’s an example from my debut novel, A Dream of Death. Kate is on a quest to find certain information, and that quest leads her out into a cold, rainy night in the Scottish Hebrides. As the rain pelts down at an angle, Kate gets soaked. Even under her umbrella, an icy trickle hits the back of her neck and slithers down her spine. Yes, I made it harder for her, but more importantly. I demonstrated Kate’s character, her determination to fulfill a promise she’d made to her late husband. And the late-night trek advances the plot, leading to the book’s conclusion.
In fiction as in life, without suffering, we would never develop strength of character or compassion for others. Without adverse circumstances, there would be no need for creativity or the ability to adapt. Without confusion, we wouldn’t be curious. Without unkindness and unfairness, we couldn’t possibly understand loyalty, love, mercy, and true humility.
In fiction as in life, the wound is the place where the light gets in.
Readers, what attracts you to a fictional character? Authors, how do you feel about making your characters suffer? Are you too nice to them? Comment below or head over to our Facebook page.