First off: Ogre Enchanted is out, loosed upon the world!
And I forgot to mention that I’ll be in Millbrook, New York, at the Merritt Bookstore on Saturday, October 27th, at 11:00 am. Hope to see any of you who live in the area and can make it!
Here’s a craft thing that I’ve been thinking about as I’ve begun revising Long-Ago Cima (which may not be the title in the end), my historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. I like concise writing, so I put my manuscript on a diet when I revise. Unneeded words must go!
And I find them in locutions like, She could see, He could hear, They could feel. Or can see, hear, feel, depending on tense. I write phrases like these without noticing, and I see them in the writing of others. But usually, if she, he, and they could, they did, which is what’s meant, and the word could is unnecessary, as in She saw, or He hears, and so on. Occasionally we need the word could, as in: Meredith started her training as a chocolate-pudding taster. Yes! She could pick out the deeper notes of the cocoa in the sample from the high mountains of the planet Ponso, and could taste the extra sweetness in the sample from the jungles of Ewel.
This is just one more detail to keep our eyes on!
Just saying, if any company is looking for a chocolate-pudding taster, I’m available.
On to the post.
On August 10, 2018, Melissa Mead wrote, Related to the “How can I make my characters suffer?” question, another online group I’m in is talking about authors who make their characters suffer TOO much, so it ceases to have meaning for the reader. Made me think about the time I showed a scene to a pro-author friend. She read it, looked grim, and just said “I hope the villain gets what’s coming to him.”
How do you know when you’ve gone too far in that direction?
A brief back-and-forth followed:
Sara: Maybe when everything that happens to them for a while is suffering? This may be hard to tell, but that’s the only guideline I can think of. Have you read villains who, despite their wickedness, you almost have to root for because they’re so clever and persistent, like at either defeating the MC or just staying alive in repeated dangerous situations? If you make a villain come out on top a lot but still have those justified bad things happening, the suffering should feel gradual. Or the suffering can be minor things, added up over time to be major. This applies to any character, too, obviously.
Melissa Mead: I do know that there’s at least one scene in my WIP that I wouldn’t be able to watch if it were on TV, but then, I scare easily. (I wasn’t trying to make it that way, but, well, serpent-demons do upsetting things.) I don’t know if it would be as upsetting for the typical reader.
At yesterday’s launch of Ogre, I was sharing my worries about the expulsion book with my poor audience–that it will contain too much suffering for middle-grade readers. (My deepest fear, really, is that my editor will say she doesn’t know any age it’s right for–too young for adult and young adult, too old for middle grade–except for kids between eleven-and-six-months and eleven-and-seven-months.) Interestingly, a middle-school librarian who was there said that the kids at her school can’t get enough of Holocaust books, so too much suffering may not be too much of a problem!
We may not need to worry about children, or most readers. They’re tough! It is possible that Melissa Mead’s worry (and mine) is merely one more anxiety that we writers find to torment ourselves with.
On the other hand, I have a confession: I rarely read novels these days because of the suffering, which I buy into too deeply. Even though I’m a very happy person, the suffering I create on the page comes from somewhere in me, and the suffering other writers put on their pages comes from depths within them. I don’t need to suspend my disbelief, I need to engage it!
I’m not sure if the villain is at the heart of Melissa Mead’s question. Seems to me it’s the nature of the MC and the intersection of main character and villain.
To take a cartoony example: suppose our villain likes to flay his victims. Being skinned alive is major suffering, I’d say. But suppose our main character is Lizzie, lizard-girl, and she grows new skin instantly. In fact, she enjoys a good flaying, which feels to her like having her back scratched.
The suffering vanishes. Alas, so does the tension. Unless the reader knows that Lizzie’s five-year-old brother hasn’t come into his super power yet. If the villain discovers Markie’s vulnerability, the boy is in for a lot of pain and possibly death. Lizzie has to protect him!
Now the reader suffers, but the suffering is more anticipation than the agony of the rupture of major blood vessels.
Obviously, suffering doesn’t have to be inflicted by a villain. As we’ve seen in recent weather events, nature can be its instrument. So can well-meaning characters, and that may be the worst suffering of all. Lizzie is babysitting Markie at an amusement park, and he is desperately eager to go on the Ferris Wheel. She’s a good sister; there’s no height requirement for the ride; the wind isn’t that strong; she’ll be right next to him; what could go wrong?
Everything. The wind picks up to gale force; the ride malfunctions; Markie, who loves it all, decides to unhook his harness before his sister can stop him–and he dies or is so injured he’ll never be the same.
I would put down the book.
But I’d miss what happens over time. Lizzie becomes a crusader against unsafe amusement park rides, and annual injuries and fatalities plummet. After a lot of self-examination she recognizes that she had been reckless with Markie’s safety, and she forgives herself. There will always be a scar, but she’s stronger for it, more thoughtful, more cautious.
If the writer wants to cheer us up entirely, she can make Markie survive and develop skills that compensate for his injury. His future is different than it would have been, but it’s bright.
Let’s return to our flaying villain and Lizzie. Suppose she has no super power, and she is seriously flayed. She’s getting medical attention, but she’s in terrible pain, and she’s blaming herself for failing to defeat the villain, for not wearing her armor, for being weak. The reader loves her, so he’s suffering, too.
What can we do to make the suffering bearable for her and the reader?
I’ve used this strategy many times: We give her qualities that don’t remove her suffering but make it somewhat bearable. She can know meditation techniques that allow her to get a little distance on the pain; her world view finds meaning in suffering as the route to a higher life; she’s confident that her inner strength will get her through this.
Other characters. Lizzie’s best friend’s face is the first thing she sees when she wakes up from her blackout, even if the villain is still on the loose. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, without giving anything away, I use a disembodied voice to help Addie through her worst moments. If the suffering is tolerable to our MC, it will be bearable to our readers.
Reader knowledge can help, too. Lizzie’s worst fear when she blacks out is that the flaying villain got Markie, but the reader knows he’s okay.
Just saying, some of us–many of us–are too timid about bringing suffering down on our characters. Too little is at least as bad as too much. I’m not convinced that Melissa Mead’s reader’s grim response to her villain isn’t a good thing. We want our readers to feel strongly! Kudos to us when we achieve that.
And there is tragedy and readers who gobble it up. For them there is no such thing as too sad. The more hankies the better. We can give them what they want and feel good about it. We’re not creating misery in the real world. When we want to, we can go for it.
Here are four prompts:
∙ Here’s a link to the Wikipedia entry of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient times: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eruption_of_Mount_Vesuvius_in_79#Pliny_the_Younger. Write this history as a tragedy, which it was. Don’t leave a dry eye in the house.
∙ Write the same events but use the strategies in this post and others you may know to leaven the suffering. End with hope.
∙ If you are brave, write possibly the worst tragedy imaginable, a tragic outcome when it didn’t have to be that way, when everything that goes wrong is preventable and happens because of mistakes and the fatal character flaw in your main character, who is otherwise lovable with many fine qualities. Lizzie persuades two friends to join her on an expedition into the mountains of their kingdom, where the terrain is super dangerous and the caves are inhabited by sentient bears who hate humans. Bring it to a terrible conclusion.
∙ Change one thing in the prompt above. Create lots of suffering, but make it come out okay.
Have fun, and save what you write!