My previous post raised questions about hurting fictional characters:
- Do you question yourself about your willingness to write the scenes where people are going to get hurt?
- Do you stop short of where the story needs to go because you’re afraid of what others will think of you?
- How do you know when you’ve gone far enough? Too far?
My thanks to the writers who shared their experiences in the comments and helped me refine my thinking here. (You can find Lucy, Joel and Judy’s full comments here.)
Lucy admitted she had been reluctant to hurt a favorite character. Her co-author caught on to Lucy’s attempts to protect the character by keeping him in a desk job. After pushing herself to send this character into jeopardy, Lucy realized he is now no longer content to stay behind the desk.
It’s a lesson for those of us who hesitate putting our characters in harm’s way. Your characters may be more eager for adventure than you realize. Or than the character himself realizes, as illustrated by Frodo in The Hobbit.
Lucy’s co-author advised her, “It’s his turn. Show the readers his integrity and loyalty to his friends.”
The only way characters can show loyalty and integrity is to be in situations that test their loyalty and integrity. Your characters will face challenges they can’t immediately meet, struggle to get through those challenges, and fail some tests along the way. This makes their ultimate victory that much sweeter.
Don’t hold your characters back from being all they can be. Your test of valor is whether you are brave enough to let your characters face the tests of their valor.
At the same time, you don’t want to overwhelm your audience. How far is far enough but not too far depends on the audience. Horror readers, for example, expect scenes that would make a romance reader slam the book shut in, well, horror.
Joel Canfield made a conscious decision to not write all the dark stuff he could because sharing his writing with friends who love his writing “means more to me than pulling out all the stops to write what someone I don’t know might want to read.”
On the other hand, Lucy’s intention as a writer of men’s action novels is “to write authentically, to make the reader wince or cringe, but never to the point where they stopped eating lunch or put the book down permanently.”
When I was at the AWP Conference, one panelist on the “Women Writing Sex Scenes for Women” discussion observed that the mechanics of sex are pretty much the same. What engages her as a writer and a reader is not descriptions of body parts doing what body parts do, but the consequences the sex act has on the characters.
I think the same is true for violence, whether it’s human-on-human violence (sentient-being-on-sentient-being in sff), society’s violence against humans or nature’s violence. There are variations, of course, in the kind and degree of pain and suffering characters experience, but what’s most significant is how the characters are changed by the experience.
How far is far enough is a question only you, the writer, can answer. Your answers will change depending on the characters, the situations you’ve created, your audience and your own courage. It’s essential you keep asking the question.
Speaking of writer’s courage, I am so intrigued by Judy Westergard’s observation that her readers as the darlings she needs to kill to give herself freedom to write what needs to be written, it will initiate my next post.
I have darlings that need killing, but they’re not my readers… Do you have darlings you need to kill?