Lines of Departure
This blog post actually got started in a conversation about wasp spray. Yes, that’s right, my expressing dissatisfaction with the fact that the nerve foam was taking twelve hours to kill some of the wasps somehow led to my friend (and fellow blogger) Lisa (henceforth Prolific Trek) asking on FB “Hey James, weren’t you just talking about torturing characters?” Cedar, ever the opportunist, immediately asked for more explanation…which led to me revealing the illustrious Holly Messinger (author of The Curse of Jacob Tracy) had been asked the following question in her Writing 101 panel:
“Y’all talk about torturing your characters… are there any lines you won’t cross?”
Well…you’d have thought I’d been handing out briefcases of cash with complimentary free passes to Big Bob’s Gigolo Shack (“Big, Small, Bob Screws Them All”) from the way Cedar lit up. After a little back and forth, here I am…and I have a confession to make:
I am among the worst people to ask about this subject there is.
I’m not saying I go out of my way to torture my characters. But ever since Holly told me about that question getting asked, I have been quietly cataloguing things that I have done to main POV characters since I first started writing. In no particular order:
*A main character received a posthumous note from his fiancée…that he had basically sent to her death.
*In my first post-apocalyptic novel, the protagonist returned from a six month journey to find his hometown burned mostly to the ground and almost all the inhabitants murdered. The sole “survivors”? His tortured best friend and brutally raped significant other, both of whom he subsequently shoots in the head as they are beyond medical help.
*Said rather perturbed protagonist goes on what The Bride called “a roaring rampage of revenge.” First stop? Executing another POV character’s wife and twin kindergarteners in front of him, then dropping a thermite grenade in the man’s crotch ala The Crow.
*In my alternate history universe, there is a POV character that readers may get attached to. He gets shot down over the Pacific, but manages to bail out. Oh the ocean. I mean, it’s so full of life, so bright with sunlight, so utterly expansive that a single pilot can get lost in its rea…oh, sorry, I forgot myself there for a second.
The list could go on, but I think you get the point. Asking me “Is there anything you won’t do to your characters?” is like Simon de Montfort asking Genghis Khan if the sack of Beziers was a bit excessive. Is there any doubt what that response is going to be?
I received your letter with great humor and admiration for your pithy guidance. While a godless barbarian myself, I can acknowledge ‘Kill them all, for the Lord will know his own…’ is a pretty succinct set of instructions. The chroniclers tell me that you did not have many problems with towns after that. I’ll have to remember this when I go on my “From the Steppes to the Wall” tour of Jin next year. Please ask the minstrels accompanying my messenger to play our latest hit, “Your Son Ran Like Your Mother and Screams Like Your Wife”
I won’t keep you, but to quell any misgivings you might have: Were the townsfolk buried in accordance with your religious rites in consecrated ground? Putting them to the sword? Cool. Having them roam this plain as disembodied spirits wailing in the agony they died? A little harsh. I don’t know how this whole Christianity thing works, but I figure as long as your guys didn’t pack the women and children like cordwood, build a dance hall over them, then kill them by moshing the night away their souls still went to haven, hoven, heaven, whatever, right? (BTW, have you heard of this new minstrel, John Davis?) Ergo, you followed your instructions and it’s all good in the hood my friend.
Your Obedient Servant,
P.S. I’m having a bit of trouble with some guy named Sultan Muhammed. Do you have any tips?
All that being said, from beta readers and observation of issues other authors wrestle with, I can give ten general tips an author may want to consider with regards to character distress. Why ten? Because Clemenceau’s response to Wilson’s Fourteen Points (“The Lord God only expected us to remember ten!”) is a pretty good standard for everything. These aren’t so much “Don’t venture beyond these lines…” but “Before you cross the streams, erm, lines, have these things in the back of your head.” So…:
Whoops! Wrong list!
#1–No puppies, no kids
In the movie The Professional, Leon the Hitman observes the rule “No Women, No Kids” with regards to people he won’t kill. Well, given we are in the 21st Century, the first half of that rule is only followed by chauvinists and idiots. However, I can tell you first hand that people tend to get mad as hell when you kill an animal. This anger is followed closely by the rage you’ll get to suffer after putting Little Timmy to the sword. Pull the equivalent of having little Timmy and Lassie walking on the Aioi bridge around 8:13 on August 6, 1945? (“Look Lassie, a four-engined symbol of America’s massive industrial might! Oh, hey, a parachute! Man, I’m so glad that weird wizard neighbor sent us back in time…”) Well, let’s just say that people are going to have words with you. Four letter words, many of them involving unnatural acts of copulation and questions about your parentage.
Trust me when I speak of this. Not even the bonds of matrimony will redeem you if you cross this line. Indeed, the better half stopped reading my novel An Unproven Concept when I didn’t even downshift driving over it. She was totally okay with the fact I’d splattered, battered, and stirred a couple thousand innocent passengers. But the following passage?:
A great hound the size of a small adult whining piteously as it furiously licked its master’s face, the animal’s back as clearly broken as the dead human’s.
Yep, that was it, I was officially Satan incarnate and out my First Reader for that book. Similarly, one of my beta readers for the aforementioned post-apocalyptic novel basically bowed out after my protagonist went on his revenge spree. “I can see no purpose in shooting a 6-year old. Can’t tell the difference between the good and the bad guys at this point, I’m done.” Which leads to my next point…
#2—When you leave that way you can never go back
Confederate Railroad for the win. (“Um, James, we don’t talk about Confed…” “Shut it.”) Understand that if you want your main character to be sympathetic, you must take care not to have him or her do something that is beyond the pale. It will not matter if this is a reasonable response to their tribulations, readers will be pissed. To think of one example, I’m always struck of the people who are sympathetic to Jaime Lannister either as his toned down HBO version or the unrepentant asshat in the Game of Thrones books. I’m sorry, but even I lack sympathy for a man who shoves a 10-year-old out a window because the child saw him giving the business to his sister. Add in the fact that this set in motion a chain of events that results in half of a kingdom getting turned to wasteland, and I’m thinking the wrong POV character got his “pillar and stones” turned into a SNL skit.
I’m not being hypocritical on this one. In response to the negative feedback, I rewrote the post-apocalyptic revenge sequence. Instead of my MC wiping out the other POV character, he will instead have a serious crisis of conscience but not kill the family. I’ll admit, the adjustment was very grudging, but I stopped to consider that my MC was not a lone wolf. Indeed, he was surrounded by several other professionals…and it was very unlikely they were going to be down with the sweet genocidal cleansing called for. Which segues nicely into my next point…
#3—Secondary characters have a breaking point
Even if your MC is stoically taking the kicks to the groin and chairs to the back of the head, other characters won’t. The following is not intended to pick on David Weber, but I got to wonder at what point do people stop being friends with Honor Harrington? Seriously—ever notice “The Salamander” neglects to sprinkle some of her good luck fairy dust on those around her? Being one of her guards is deadlier than being Mack Bolan’s girlfriend (RIP April Rose). Yet, despite this, you never see anyone say “Eff this shit, I’m out…”. Unfortunately, if your secondary characters have their own desires, goals, plans that require them to still be breathing, they’re not going to keep hanging around a MC whose associates drop like flies. Or at least, not without very good reason. Just remember that your hero is called a hero for a reason. Short of Imperial Japanese Army or Waffen-SS levels of conditioning, secondary characters should start having to make morale checks when the fecal matter starts to hit the air circulator.
#4—Gratuitous evil is gratuitous
“The villain is the protagonist in his own version of the story.” I have heard various versions of this advice, and I try to take it to heart. Basically, unless your antagonist is a psychopath (which, there’s a place for that—see Heath Ledger’s Joker or Ramsay Bolton), they should be torturing the main character for a reason, not because they’re evil. Contrary to his caricature, Darth Vader doesn’t just run around choking people because that’s how Palpatine programmed the suit to stimulate his pleasure centers. No, generally if Darth Vader is doing the Trachea Tango with an unwitting partner, it’s either because they got mouthy or had it coming. (“What part of ‘don’t bring the fleet out of hyperspace so close the rebels have time to crap themselves’ was in Swahili?” = dialogue selections that should be available in all Lucasarts games.) Don’t cheapen your otherwise logical antagonists by having them drop Willie Pete all over that orphanage because they want to make some s’mores. (“But, but I like the way the singed formula gives a sweet aftertaste to the marshmallows.”ßBad example, as even this is logical. Twisted, but logical.)
Note that this also applies to extraterrestrial antagonists. While viewers don’t necessarily like the Queen in Aliens, in general Ripley Scott does a good job of explaining she’s in it for the procreation. Similarly, Timothy Zahn’s Conquerors and Cobra-series also explain why sentient beings might decide to go oops upside Humanity’s head.
(“Hey, wait a second, we’ve read your books! You’re a jerk who never explains the aliens’ motivations!” “Yeah, well, wait for the sequel.” “You mean the damn sequel you’ve been promising us for like 3 years, then told us is going to go backwards?!!” “Excuse me, writing a blog post here!”)
#5—Psychological trauma needs to be addressed
Ever had someone tie you up and beat the bejeebus out of you? Been helpless as your family was made to suffer before your very eyes? I know I haven’t (thank goodness), but I’ve talked to folks who have suffered through both. Despite what Hollywood would like you to believe, this is not something most people get over. PTSD is not trivial, and it is the kind of thing that can build with time. Before you decide to put a character through the wringer, might want to figure out the plan to make them functional on the far side. People don’t just watch their loved ones’ throats get slit, narrowly escape themselves, then make breakfast the next morning. No, your character doesn’t need to be a psychological wreck who is crying every other chapter. However, they should be sort of like Daniel Craig’s James Bond, i.e. you’re starting to see the accumulated toll of losing Vesper, friends, getting shot at M’s orders, etc. by the middle of Skyfall.
#6—Physical trauma also needs to be addressed
Raise your hand if you’ve ever had surgery, broken a bone, or had a concussion. Have that trick knee that decides to kick out at the most inopportune time. Can usually tell the weather is going to change thanks to that broken pelvis you got when the mechanical bull malfunctioned at your favorite watering hole. The point here is simple—if you’re going to have your characters get tortured physically, you better either have a doctor on site (yes, that’s another Hamilton reference), a magical way of healing, or budget recovery time into your larger story arc. If your environment is in any way austere, i.e. post-apocalyptic, you better not have someone getting willy nilly beat about the head and shoulders yet just shrugging things off. Lastly, the Joy of Beating is not a bestseller for a reason. Most people don’t enjoy seeing a major secondary character, nevermind a MC, slowly and laboriously pummeled. There better be a reason you subject your reader to the crunch, crunch, pop! of a favorite character’s skull getting beat in with a barbwire-wrapped baseball bat (some of you know what I’m talking about and are nodding sagely, some of you will find out soon enough). Oh, hey, look…speaking of which:
#7—Dead characters = angry fans
Who here remembers Jadzia Dax from Deep Space Nine? How about Andrea Harrison from The Walking Dead? Arthur Fonzarelli from Happy Days? *muttered whispering from off stage* “Well, yeah, but think how much better things would have been if Fonzie had gotten whacked by the shark?” See, the point of this is, both of the first two characters are usually remembered for their cheap deaths. Unlike producer actor feuds, the #1 killers of TV stars, often times authors go to whack a significant others to “shake things up” or in a cheap bid to cause emotion. This is a bad idea. Consider how mad everyone was after “The Red Wedding.” Now think about the fact that those deaths served a purpose. As I can tell you from dealing with Prolific Trek on a regular basis, kill a strong character like Jadzia for no good reason, you will earn your fans’ enmity for all eternity. Similarly, having a character like Andrea go out because you apparently don’t know what to do with her will similarly get your pilloried by reviewers.
“But wait, I totally had a reason for that character death, so my fans will forgive me, right?” Wrong. To go back to “The Red Wedding,” George R.R. Martin set it up beautifully and whacked Robb Stark for a good reason. I can tell you that there are people (First Reader included) who basically decided they were done with that franchise after that point. So, if you’re going to spend two or three books in a series doing character development, especially with major POV characters, understand you’re going to take a hit when said individual catches the Last Train West.
#8—Rape is not a gimmick
One of the standby things that would happen in old ‘70s and ‘80s men’s action adventure novels would be either someone close to the MC or the “damsel of the week” getting viciously violated by the main villain. Said woman would then be magically healed within the next 100 or so pages, and hop right in bed with the MC prior to said villain getting his just desserts.
The real world does not work this way. Let me quote from FM 22-102, the “official manual for wall-to-wall counseling”:
No offense is as damaging to the victim as rape. Murder does not come close, since the victim is dead and knows nothing. A raped soldier will have psychological scars for the rest of his or her life. A male soldier who is the victim of a homosexual rape is especially damaged, and many commit suicide rather than live with this burden.
Fake manual, real shit. Reach towards this line with caution, as the reason every freakin’ hair on your body is standing up is this is like playing Russian roulette with five rounds in the chamber and twenty million dollars on the table. In other words, this better be a “high risk, high reward” situation, not a “Oh, people will think this is edgy!” or “Hmm, I need to do something interesting to the main character’s significant other.” The character who was raped is going to be messed up, and before you open this can you better figure out how they’re going to react.
Also check out the above with regards to male rape. In most societies, this is a topic that is not dealt with. That’s not “dealt with well,” it’s not dealt with. If your society has high machismo coupled with patriarchy, there will likely be nowhere for a raped male character to turn for help. So, no, don’t go there unless you’re ready to do it right, lest you end up the “other guy” in a Rihanna song.
Bottom line: If you have someone getting raped, it should be written in a manner that’s going to make your skin crawl, as that’s what will be happening to your readers. One of the best rape scenes (*record skritches, bystanders gasp*), erm most well-written rape scenes I remember is from Laurell K. Hamilton’s Blue Moon. Suffice to say, Hamilton was sure to stress that the character who was raped needs, seeks, and gets therapy, along with his mother who was a near witness to the crime. It’s powerful, and some of the best writing in the series before Anita Blake became a…well, let’s just say the series sometimes ends up in the paranormal erotica section.
#9—The “Grandma Rule” is in effect
Remember that if you’re even semi-successful, you will have no control over who sees your work. The most chilling words an author can hear from someone important to them are, “So, I read your book.” I call this “The Grandma Rule,” i.e. always remember that your grandmother just might find your novel no matter how well you try to hide it. Say you tuckerized a good friend, and she’s the person you had the MC have to mercy kill? You’ll hear about it for decades. No really, decades. If you are in a community that frowns upon certain activities like a MC lovingly spending ten hours flaying the villain with a knife? Express ticket to social pariah status. I mean, sure this well-deserved comeuppance will have your readers needing the rhetorical cigarette and change of clothes, but is that payoff worth having to drive two hours for milk? Similarly, if your grandmother is going to have a heart attack when she reads what her favorite grandchild has written about a MC trading two innocent bystanders to a pack of cannibals in exchange for a couple crates of ammo, Thanksgiving is going to be a little awkward. (But hey, you’ll be able to afford one hell of a turkey with your chunk of the inheritance.) Last but not least, if your employer will look dimly on you raining nuclear hellfire down on certain nations, cities, or regions, don’t do it. Why yes, your helpful narrator can tell you exactly what a JAG looks like as his mental intel processor is trying to process the hypothetical of “So, say I published a story where ______________________ happens. Would that be a terminating offense?” While his answer wasn’t “FOR F___K’S SAKE, YES!”, it was close enough that story has only seen limited release to a few friends. I’m all about pressing the envelope for my art, but I’ve got a mortgage.
#10—Editors are interested in selling, not your “art”
Speaking of people with mortgages, editors are notoriously risk averse. I know, there’s probably a couple hundred examples of stuff that got greenlit where all manner of bad things happened. I’d go to Vegas with the odds for every example you can name, if we got an experienced editor drunk enough they could give me another dozen that got stamped “NO! GET THERAPY!” It is hard enough to break through with a major publishing house. No need to make things more difficult by opening the book with the main villain saying, “This youngling is dry. Pass the Worcestshire sauce…”. Save the crazy stuff for book two if you’re going traditional publishing, as your editor will almost always be thinking “Do I want to explain this on a special news segment?” Think of it like a relationship: If you just met someone off a dating service, you wouldn’t let them know “I crush civilizations beneath my heel and make people scream in anguish…” right off the bat, would you? No, of course not—that’s for after they’ve already moved in with you and signed a two year lease. (“Wait…wait…you’re that guy?!”ßFiled under “I’ll take conversations that are about to go horribly right or wrong in the next 30 seconds for $1000, Alex.”)
*takes deep breath* Okay then, that about covers it. I think Cedar has now officially taken me off the guest bloggers list, but dammit it was worth it.