Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Wrestling with Demons, or How Not to Be a Nice Person

I'm a writer. It's what I do. I decided a couple years ago to shift from non-fiction to fiction. Nobody bothered to tell me that, in order to write good fiction, you have to become sadist and torture your characters.

Here's the thing: Unless you prefer overblown literary fiction, when you read a novel you want conflict. That's what drives the story, what pushes people to do things that make a difference in the outcome. Without conflict the reader might die of boredom. Or at least put the book down and never buy another title with your name on it.

Look at the classics. Huckleberry Finn. War and Peace. Wuthering Heights. Shakespeare. Heck, even going back to Homer, every good story has battles, either literal or figurative, between the characters. There's not always a clear-cut good guy and bad guy, but the central figures in the plot need to be at odds with one another in some fashion. Maybe they disagree about how to handle a situation. Maybe their values are very different, so different they can't find common ground. Maybe one of them is just a dirtbag.

So here I am, sitting at my desk, beaming over the great plotline I've thought up and tweaked with the help of illuminating conversations with friends and spouse. I've got a great main character - she's really three-dimensional, I know her backstory all the way down to her birth, and she has great motivation to do all sorts of interesting things in my story. Even though she isn't a flesh-and-blood person, I'm kind of fond of her. And in order to write the novel, I have to be really mean to her.

I have to put her in situations that encourage her to make mistakes. I have to make the other characters attack her, undermine her, plot against her. Maybe her first mistake is an honest one, something anyone could have done in similar circumstances. But what happens when we make mistakes and then panic? We make more mistakes, trying to 'fix' the situation the first one caused. The snowball effect ensues, bringing down disaster on my beloved main character. Yikes.

I hate this part. I guess I'm not really a sadist at heart (that's probably a good thing) but I know what is necessary to create a gripping story. I've read books that bored me to tears because the conflict didn't seem real or there wasn't enough (or any) of it.

So I have to allow my imagination to roam into the darker realms of meanness...if I were the bad guy, what would I do? How would I trip up an opponent, a really sweet woman who only wants to see justice done? What would I do to embarrass her, encourage her to make mistakes, push her to panic?

The good part is that I then get to figure out how she gets herself out of the mess. At least I have that satisfaction. After all, I do believe in happy endings.