Friday, September 17, 2010

Cruel, Cruel Authors You Must Read

In my last two blogs, I wrote about authors who have influenced my writing. Much of whatever is good in my WIP owes a great debt to these foremothers and fathers. As a newbie writer, there's still I lot I don't know about crafting a great novel, so this time around I'm writing about some folks who I need to learn a lesson from.

A while ago, Claudia wondered what it would mean for the story if my main character, Beryl, died. A (small) part of my brain can see the merits of her suggestion, but honestly, at the time I came very close to crying into my tea. (Just to be clear: we are a very congenial bunch and I can't imagine any of us ever bringing another to tears over our critiques of each other's writing.) "But I love Beryl!" my brain screamed, "I can't kill her! I would miss her! I couldn't! I couldn't possibly!"

In the Loft class out of which Scribblerati formed, Lyda Morehouse gave a graphic representation of her plots. Picture a big u-shaped curve. The protagonist starts out fine, but then bad things happen, and more bad things, and more and more and more, and with each catastrophe, the protagonist refuses to learn/change/grow/act until she or he hits the bottom of the curve. Then they start actually learning from their mistakes, or start protaging rather then passively accepting their punishment. At which point they climb gradually out of the hole. In other words, Lyda likes to beat up on her protagonist. A lot. I took the class, I listened, took notes, respected Lyda's advice, after all, she's not only a published author, she's a really good one. But even so, I clearly didn't really learn this lesson, because I still catch myself being too nice to Beryl.

A number of the books I read over the summer have helped me see more clearly how my own tendency toward not wanting to hurt, while likely a virtue in real life, is not always a virtue in fiction. The best two, and the ones I demand/suggest/plead that you all read, if you haven't yet, are as follows:

1. The Knife of Never Letting Go. Patrick Ness. I'm a slow reader. It's a pretty hefty book. I read it in two days. I never read anything in two days. It is non-stop. Lyda's u-shaped curve becomes a cliff that Todd Hewitt free falls down. Patrick N. is cruel--very cruel--to Todd, but I'm not sure I've ever rooted for a character like I rooted for Todd. Plus, the language is amazing. The talking dog? He's incredible. Please, please, read this book.

2. The Name of the Wind. Patrick Rothfuss. At this year's Wiscon, I went to a session that was facilitated by Patrick R. He was so funny and charming that I decided to read his book. Where Knife is a frakking adrenalin rush, Name is a book for savoring. It does have lots of action and suspense, but paired with an intricate storyline, and a careful, detailed telling of the wizard Kvothe's coming of age. While Todd Hewitt plummets into the ever-deepening abyss of badness, Kvothe has many good things happen along his journey. But the material benefits of each success are all very short-lived; we think that now, finally, things will work out for Kvothe, but no, the benefits keep disappearing, and more obstacles arise. It's kinder and gentler than The Knife of Never Letting Go, but Patrick R. still knows how to kick his protagonist and keep him down. I haven't done it justice here, so I'll just repeat: please, please, read this book.

Both these Patricks have mastered what I am just learning: that in order to have your readers fall in love with, care about, root for, and feel like they want to protect your main character, you have to hurt them. You can be gentle, you can be fierce, but you need to cause them pain.

It's so unlike real life, this being mean to someone so that other people will love them as much as you do. Warped.

And so I struggle.


Jon said...

I don't know, I think kicking your characters is the best part.

Qlaudie said...

Oh man. I made Lisa almost cry. I'm going to the special hell now. THE SPECIAL HELL.
Heh. The above is (loosely) a Joss Whedon quote, and Joss is a cautionary tale, that it is possible to hurt your characters TOO much, or to hurt the wrong character, for the wrong reasons.
Don't get me wrong, he's my favorite TV scribe of all time, but he proves there is a line, where character cruelty is concerned - when it starts to amount to audience cruelty.
However, I think most of us fall into the Lisa category. We're too soft on our protagonists. Hmmm... how to hurt Ursula... hmmm....

Jon said...

Punch her in the boob!

Shawn Enderlin said...

I don't think you necessarily have to hurt your character, but you do need to create conflict for your character. You could, for example, be hurting someone your main character is close to, which would of course create conflict.

And to Claudia's point about Joss. Joss could be exceptionally cruel to his characters, sometimes to the point where it wasn't necessary.

As with all things in writing, conflict must always serve advancement of plot, character development, something. Hurting your characters just to provoke an emotional response in the reader can be useful, but it can also just piss people off.

Jon said...