Do you let your characters get away with doing things the easy way? Do you avoid hurting them now… only to have them hurt more later, when the tale they’re in gets no love from editors or agents?
I write sci-fi and fantasy, and in my novels I have a heck of a time keeping things tense and dark. My natural tendency is to do things in a logical, sane and safe way, in writing just as in life—to fix things, keep an even keel, and avoid confrontation. Bad idea! Though my personal life is pretty good, no one is going to stay up late reading about it.
It’s hard to keep up interest, especially throughout the middle of a novel, if everything happens easily, predictably, without any hard feelings. We all know that conflict is the life blood of any story, no matter the genre. But conflict is painful and hard… why would anyone in the real world go through it if they had a choice?
Okay, here’s the thing: novels aren’t the real world. They have to be more exciting and meaningful than real life.
It’s said that the difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. I’m not one to believe that “everything happens for a reason.” In real life, bad things happen to good people, and it’s often impossible to figure out a reason why… but in a novel or short story these same things have to make sense in the context of the tale you’re telling. The bad stuff doesn’t necessarily need to involve physical danger, but there should be heartbreak, stress, and bad choices. Or brave choices. Ones where your character, whom you love as much as a brother, sister, lover or friend (at least while you’re writing them) has to do crazy, dangerous, difficult things.
It takes nerve and a certain kind of mental attitude (at least for me) to go ahead, let loose with some mayhem, strife, arguments and even flying bullets now and then. I have to work hard to keep my peace-making (boring!) attitudes out of the picture.
Here’s a cliché scenario. You probably know how you would react to a suspicious noise from your dark, spooky basement when the news has just announced there’s a killer on the loose. Duh—you wouldn’t go down there. You’d call 911. But your heroine needs to make the—possibly bad, possibly brave—choice to venture down those stairs. It’s up to you to think of just why she would do such a dumb thing. You can’t let her get away with doing things the easy way, the safe way.
But you hate “dumb broads” who do stupid things just to further a plot, right? Well, if you are doing your job devising scenes, thinking of motivation and keeping your eye on the goal, your characters will do things for a reason—their own good reason—and will find themselves in a world of trouble. Exactly where you want them.
A novel, in whatever genre, has a Black Moment, the equivalent to a drunk hitting rock bottom. An addict can’t fight his or her way to recovery until that point is reached.
Bad choices have consequences. The hero and heroine will suffer… but if you dish out some tough love along the way, they’ll get to the end of the story battered and bruised, but happy.