My toddlers and I love using our imaginations when playing with Little People action figures and Beanie Babies. However, I think my five-year-old has more fun messing with the carefully created plots that I craft for our playtime.
For example, I enjoy the mundane story with generic problems while playing with my kiddos. It’s typically G-rated, predictable, and relaxing. Or what my five-year-old describes as . . .
Me: Let’s have the kids get on the bus for school. Next, they’ll learn about the zoo. After that, they’ll board a second bus for the zoo and visit the animals. The zoo guide will teach them amazing facts about the elephant, ostrich, the lion, the gorilla, and even the hippo. Finally, they’ll ride the bus home. Their parents will meet them there and take them to the park to swing in the tree house. The End. 🙂
My Five-Year-Old: But on the way home from the park, a giant dragon comes and attacks them! *Ka-BLAM!* ::He knocks over the school bus, sending miniature plastic children flying everywhere:: Then, Spider-Man comes and saves them, followed by Link (the plush kind) fights the Dragon. *Pow! Pow!* *Boom, Ka-CHUNG!*
Me: Why don’t the dragon and Link become friends? Hmmm? Wouldn’t that be nice?
(Understand that his preschool teacher has lamented to me how he sometimes enjoys play-fighting too much). 😦
My Five-Year-Old: Mom! This is a dragon and this is Link. Link’s a hero and doesn’t make friends with the enemy. Geeze. ::Link smacks the dragon with his sword::
Me: Okay. So, they fight and then Iron Man shows up and tells some jokes, right?
My Five-Year-Old: ::sighs, like a weary old man:: Okay. Fine. Let’s build some mega-block towers and have the dragon and Darth Vader knock them down while Spider-man and Link try to stop them.
Me: Okay. Cool.
At times, when creating conflict my toddler is clearly a better writer than I am. He shows no mercy on the adorable Little People action figures (characters) and enjoys making life very difficult for them without batting an eyelash. In fact, I think he sometimes enjoys it. Especially when Link, Iron Man, or Spider-Man arrive to save the day.
Now, not every story calls for a literal dragon. The dragon (or the wolf) often symbolizes The Problem that your Main Character faces.
The Problem could be one of the four types of conflict:
I have two main characters in the story I’m currently drafting. The main conflict is Man vs. Society and Man vs. Man. These two characters despise one another and in general the society they live in. But I needed something more to heighten tension and suspense and it worked perfectly in this world of magic, science, and mystery.
I decided to give one of them a debilitating disease that threatens her life and compromises a goal that both characters share.
And if she dies? All is lost.
Whelp. Get the casket ready.
Now, I’ve considered killing this character off, which would totally eff things up for the other main character. And he’ll have to work his butt off trying to pick up the pieces and carry the torch to resolution. I hesitated going that route because I wasn’t sure if that was a Rule Breaker. Do I dare allow what the main character has been dodging, fighting, and hiding from to come to pass?
Do I dare?
After attending a writer’s workshop on heightening suspense, I asked the host writer, “Is it okay if the main character’s main fear actually happens?”
She smiled. A smile similar to Dark Link’s (above) and said, “Oh, yes. So glad you asked.”
Whoa. I was taken aback. I was blown away. In most stories I’ve read the protagonist is trying to avoid the Big Bad or their Worst Nightmare from coming true and is successful in just the nick of time.
This devious route seems like some new-level gangster sh!t.
But it’s not. I think I was just a coward and didn’t feel like I could do it. I was afraid to do something so totally twisted. Isn’t the world already filled with enough suffering? Do I really need to add another layer of terrible sadness and heartbreak?
Like Kyoko Mogami (from one of my most favorite mangas, Skip Beat!) I’ll take heartbreaks and unhappily ever afters (for now) differently. For example, in the Dresden Files series (spoiler alert coming) Harry Dresden’s love and mother of his only child, Susan Rodriguez, dies. I wasn’t expecting that. I was angry. Sad. And in need of counseling. I mean, I knew that Butcher often beats the crap out of Harry, but I didn’t think he’d go there.
So did, Tsugumi Ohba, in the renowned manga, Death Note. About halfway through the series, she/he/they (it’s a mystery) kills off (spoiler alert) L, Light Yagami’s rival and my favorite character!
I hope this post helps any writer who struggles with being hard on their characters.
In one of my future post, I’ll discuss the importance of a sympathetic character. Otherwise, if and when the character dies the loss is genuine and doesn’t garner a “meh” response.
One thought on “Enter the Dragon: The Art of Beating the Sh*t Out of Your Characters”
I love torturing characters. In fact, I’m a bit worried about the third book in my series because it gets dark and the series hero winds up off his rocker due to all the crap he goes through. But I think walking the dark line is a tricky one, because for readers like me, I need a sense of hope. When Susan died, yeah, I was sad for Harry, but I still had hope that good would prevail in the end, which it did due to Susan’s death. On the other hand, I stopped reading GRRM’s Song of Fire and Ice after the first book because I was so darn depressed. I didn’t have the hope of a victorious good, not enough to struggle through more books to get there. Of course my opting out hasn’t affected the series’s popularity, so maybe I’m just a weakling.
Good job deciding to kill that character. Sometimes, that can be tough. (Or sometimes, you cackle manically as you type it out.)