Sunday, October 28, 2012

To the Abyss and Back

A few posts I've read recently have gotten me thinking about characters.  What is it that makes us root for them?  Just how far down the path of difficulty do we really want them to go?

I'm pessimistic by nature, at least in how I see a story coming out.  My mind almost always leaps to the worst possible case scenario.  I don't know why that is, but it's something I've recognized and tried to take into account.  That being the case, I have to be careful that the characters in my stories don't end up at the bottom of a pit with a ton of bricks sitting on their chests.

So I've thought back to the types of stories I've enjoyed and how I wanted them to end.  Even more, I've thought back to stories that pissed me off with the ending, and what I'd have done to change them.  Most of what I've liked has been where the characters were in a situation that you logically knew was impossible for them, that created such hopelessness there was no recourse, and then they clawed and scratched their way back and into the sunlight.  Characters who overcame extreme obstacles and showed the kind of courage and perseverance we all wish we had are usually the ones I've gone back to over and over again.

I think on Colonel Andrew Lawrence Keane from The Lost Regiment series, and how how he fought in the face of impossible odds against the Tugar, Merki, and Bantag, and how no one should've gotten out alive.  I remember Harry Potter, abandoned and alone by the middle of the last book in the Harry Potter series; he defied those who told him to give up and triumphed anyway.  In a perverse way, Jack Torrence was the hero of The Shining - taken over by the spirits of the Overlook Hotel and bent on killing his family, he managed to overcome that evil just in time to save his family and ensure the hotel was destroyed forever.

Maybe that's why I write the stories I do.  I want my guys to have to overcome the impossible.  As writers, we know that no one will read something that's just hunky dory all the way through.  As much as it pains us, we have to put obstacles in their paths, and those obstacles have to be sadistic.  The reader has to believe that it's real; stuff that can be easily overcome by almost anyone bores people.

I rarely let my characters catch their breath.  Just when they think they've conquered one situation, I'll put another one in there that is even more daunting.  A novel I'm working on now has the main character's girlfriend getting kidnapped by a gang of monsters that request a meeting.  During this meeting, the main character manages to slip a GPS onto the bad guy and tracks him back to his hideout.  However, it all turns out to be a trap and the bad guys were anticipating the trick, so they used the hideout as a diversion while they went to their real objective, leaving the character, who so recently was patting himself on the back for his brilliance, flummoxed again.

Although this technique can draw readers in, a writer should be careful with it.  You can't put your characters in a hole so deep that it's impossible to climb out.  The stories that pissed me off the most were the ones where I was denied the satisfaction of the hero coming out on top in the end(horror stories are usually the worst culprits).  As sappy as it may sound, I think the kid in all of us still roots for a happy ending.  The reason we enjoy the pitfalls is because they make the triumph that much more satisfying.  However, when a writer rips the heart out of a readers and doesn't provide a glimmer of hope, that writer risks alienating readers to the point where they no longer trust him.

Put your characters through Hell.  Just make sure there is a way for them to claw their way towards Heaven in the end.

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