So, a while back I heard about this phone app called Pocket God. I kind of wanted a smart phone just to be able to play this game. Basically, the idea was you get this little man that you can torture in all kinds of fun ways. You can strike him with lightning, or feed him to sharks, or any number of equally cruel and painful things.
We can learn several important life lessons from Pocket God…at least from a writer’s perspective.
First, as writers, we can and should inflict pain and horrific experiences on our characters.
Second, pain should never be frivolous.
By way of back story, let me say that this topic was the spawn of two totally divergent sources of inspiration. One was the awful storm that hit earlier in the week. The other was one of Dave Farland’s “Daily Kick” emails that I got a couple of months ago, about being willing to inflict damage on our characters. It was a powerful enough Kick that I’m still thinking about it. These two things got me thinking about disaster in novels, and what we as writers can do to propagate them. I feel quite malicious saying that, but hey. It’s true.
So, first. This storm we had. You know the kind — maybe. Baseball size hail, howling winds, torrential downpours, and a couple of almost tornadoes almost right on top of us. Sirens are going off, the sky turns a funky color, and the guy on TV is yelling at you to take cover immediately while he stands outside commenting on the size of the hail pounding him in the head. Yeah, that kind of storm. The prudent person grabs everything of value and heads to the storm cellar — if you’re lucky enough to have a storm cellar — or the bathroom, and waits it out.
I took my dogs and bird into the bathroom with me. Once upon a time I would have grabbed a binder full of jotted down story ideas and taken that too, but nowadays I just back up the computer with Mozy and hope for the best.
What does that have to do with being a Mean Author? Well, if you think about, what a person takes with them into the bathroom or the cellar is a pretty good indication of what they find valuable. What do they most want to protect? What would be most devastating for them to lose? It’s a pretty interesting way to judge a person’s character…and therefore it’s a useful thought experiment for authors trying to get insight into their characters’, well, characters.
But it doesn’t have to be just a thought experiment. And that’s where Dave Farland’s Daily Kick comes in. He basically asked the question — how many of us (writers) actually inflict real, debilitating damage on our characters? Oh, Gary Stu might get a bruise in a battle, but it quickly heals. He might even get a slash in the arm, but the next day he’s back to swinging his sword as if nothing happened.
Damage can come in all kinds of forms. It can be personal — for instance, loss of reputation, so significant that the character can’t just walk into the local tavern and say, “Whoops, I messed up! Sorry guys!” and have it all go back to normal. It can be interpersonal, like a family fight so severe that members are alienated, permanently. Or it can be material/economic. Maybe the character’s home really is hit by a tornado, or a fire set by his antagonist, or something. How would he cope with the loss of his home and all his belongings? How could he recover? How could he rebuild, or could he even afford to? What if he can’t, and ends up living under a bridge?
This is where that storm scenario comes in handy. If you want your character to be really tested, deprive him of one of those things he would save if he was afraid he was about to lose it all. And this goes not just for the protagonist, but for any of your major players. It could be especially helpful for giving your antagonist a history or a motive. Maybe Darth Baddy would have sacrificed his life to save Mr. Fluffy, his hairless cat, but fate intervened, and in spite of all his efforts…Mr. Fluffy gets trapped in the burning bedroom, in the blaze set by…the protagonist’s father. Now we’ve got some interesting history and motive. (Granted, the example is absurd, but you get the idea.) How has Darth Baddy’s life changed by the loss of Mr. Fluffy at Larry Stu’s hands? Into what depths of grief and rage will he sink, now all alone in all the world, deprived of the companionship of the only creature who has ever cared for him? Ahhhh…angst.
So, you can instigate character growth by inflicting this kind of pain. But being a Mean Author can also involve physical maiming, like what Farland was describing. For this kind of pain, it never hurts to do a little research on medical emergencies or conditions. I got my certification as an EMT, and what I learned in that course still…inspires…me today. My characters hate me for it, but it’s true. I’ve also had a bit of personal experience with injuries or wounds that I like to share with my characters (aren’t I generous?).
Now, not everyone is going to have personal experience with gaping abdominal wounds or concussions or the like. But if you decide it’s a good idea for Bob to sustain a puncture to his torso, you might want to do some research. Where could a torso puncture be located without causing instant or certain death? What would it feel like? What would it look like? You don’t have to get graphic in your descriptions, but if you’re just inflicting damages on your characters without considering the real effects, it’s going to show.
So, here’s my advice:
- If the story calls for it (and this is especially true in fantasy), by all means inflict real injuries or damages on your characters.
- But if you’re talking about a physical wound, do some research to avoid making amateur or uneducated descriptions.
- Have the character really suffer the consequences of that injury. If you inflict damages and then magically take them away, the reader will feel cheated. If it’s a debilitating wound on the battlefield, make the character crawl to the sidelines and watch the battle rage around him. What a great opportunity for a psychological study — what reaction would this kind of person have to being forced to sit out a battle? Is he enraged, thinking only of the danger of his fellow troops and his inability to help? Is he secretly grateful that he’s out of the action? Is he ashamed, feeling like he’s lost all his honor because of his wound? Or, if you’re inflicting emotional trauma, having the character shrug it off and get on with life is unrealistic and incredibly dissatisfying to a reader. If the trauma is severe enough, what will the character do? Turn suicidal? Turn to drugs or alcohol, or cheap pleasure? Turn to God? Turn to family and friends or run away from them all?
- This brings me to my final point — don’t damage your characters for the heck of it.
This is where I diverge from my illustrious point of origin — Pocket God. While you can and should inflict pains on your characters, if you do it in a fickle, capricious way, with no purpose and no gain, your readers will see it. And they’ll hate you for it. If Fred, in his deepest heart of hearts longs to marry Mindy, but then goes from a car wreck to a burning house to a tornado at the homeless shelter to a knife wound in a back alley, and then he skips out of the hospital and makes it to the church on time, the reader will probably — and rightfully — throw the book away. Pain has to have a purpose in the story. Either it affects the action of the plot, or it affects the character’s development in such a way that he becomes the person he needs to be. It ups the emotional ante, increases the stakes and the reader’s investment in the story — and, if used properly, brings about a more powerful and satisfying denouement.
By all means, be a Mean Author. Just make sure you make it count.