Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Make 'em Suffer

The Professor, Great Horned Owl, testing out his rehab flight enclosure
Two things I've read recently has led me to conclude that one of the (many) distinctions between a writer who gets published and one who does not is how they treat their main characters.

The first comes from a blog entry Maggie Stiefvater wrote last month.  In it, she wrote a series of rules including one that reads, "Thou shalt not love your characters more than your readers do."  To clarify this idea, she continues:

I can’t tell you how many times a writer has confessed to me how much he/she adores her characters, how their voices inhabit his/her life, how he/she wishes they were real so he/she could spend time with them. Then I read the manuscript and the characters are flat as a board. It’s possible — nay, probable — that these characters are vivid, living, lovable characters in the writer’s head, inhabiting a fully-realized world full of authentic moments. But none of that character-building has made it onto the page. The writer hasn’t managed to write the characters well enough to allow the readers to share that experience.
Add to that idea something Hillary Smith wrote a week or so ago in a blog entry:

Conflict pertains to every character EXCEPT the main character
One thing I’ve seen a lot of lately are outlines that look like this:
Bonnie McPhee is a thirty-year old osteopath whose life has just hit a wall. Her boyfriend’s sister is facing life in prison, her parents’ house just got foreclosed on, and her neighbor’s son got diagnosed with leukemia. Then she makes a startling discovery about her great-grandfather’s past.
This story has so much drama—prison! deadly diseases! financial crises! dark family secrets!—but the protagonist’s role in them is unclear. Where’s Bonnie in all this? What does she stand to gain or lose? Why do we care that she resolves a dark secret from her great-grandfather’s past? What about her?

I think it is very easy for a writer to become protective of their main character.  Before sitting down to actually write the story, a writer tends to invest lots of time and energy into creating and getting to know their main character.  Becoming something of a protective parent is almost natural.

But a protected main character is also a boring main character.  The way in which you show your reader just how great your main character is is through the adversity s/he mucks through and rises above.  Readers want to cheer for your main character, but you have to give them a reason to cheer.  Presenting a nice character who does nothing exceptional, isn't tested in any way, or just worries a lot isn't active or engaging.

One of the things the best writers know is if you want people to love your main characters, make those main characters suffer.

Have you learned to make your main characters suffer?  What's the hardest part about  putting your main characters through so much in the course of your book?  Have you ever read a book where the main characters didn't go through enough to rate  main character status?

-- Tom