I’ve wanted to write about one of my personal weaknesses as a writer for a while now, and it just so happens that it’s particularly relevant this week for all of you who may watch and/or read Game of Thrones. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything for you, I hate spoilers. That being said, you might get a little nervous when you see what my post is about.
I hate killing my characters.
Now, nothing that I’ve written has been so intense that anyone needed to die, but my issue goes further than that – I don’t even like to hurt my characters, be it socially, emotionally, or mentally.
When I think about the people I admire who have written really great stuff a few big names comes to mind who really don’t have the same problems I do: Joss Whedon, Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rowling … the list could go on. Joss Whedon will kill anyone, he doesn’t care (RIP, Fred). He’ll maim them, ruin their lives, destroy everything they believe in – nothing is safe in his universe. It’s about the progression and the arc of the story, and if someone has to be sacrificed for that, then out they go.
Collins and Rowling are similar, though not quite so extreme (they’re writing for a younger audience, after all), but the effect is the same: The stakes remain high because we as the readers don’t believe that the characters are inherently safe. If we thought that, there’d be nothing to read about, because we’d know that everything is going to work out. Did you know if Harry was going to live at the end of Deathly Hallows? I didn’t. It was the last book in the series. Technically he did die. But I digress.
These examples are different than my work because they’re all basically action driven and my story isn’t – that can be the topic of a future post – but the principles still apply. As writers, we need to make our readers worried about our characters. We need to make people feel like maybe things won’t work out, and that’s why they should keep reading – to see how and if these characters are going to get out of the mess we put them in.
I think there are two reasons I struggle to create this feeling. First, I get too attached to my characters. As writers,we get to make our own worlds. As a writer of fiction I get to make the rules, and what’s the point of fiction if not to change the rules? If I wanted reality I would watch the news. So when I’m writing I find myself just wanting everything to work out for these people, and so I forget to keep it interesting.
My second problem is that I think there’s a fine line we as writers of fiction walk when we start hurting characters. You have to be careful not to cause too much damage, because the reader could lose hope. And you have to be extra careful not to piss people off and make them feel like they’ve wasted their time. Not that I’m bitter, George R.R. Martin. But I did read 3000 pages. That’s all I’m saying.
I can’t seem to figure out how to walk the line of how much is too much without losing the reader, and instead I back off so far that it’s just not interesting anymore. How do we navigate this issue in our writing? When do you all, as writers, know how much is enough? Let me know in the comments below!