Doing Terrible Things to Good (and bad) People

Day 6: 8,730 of 50,000 words

I have a hard time doing awful things.

Not in life – well, that’s probably a lie. I’m mostly a good person, but I’m sure it depends on who you ask.

What I mean is, I have a hard time doing terrible things to my characters. I keep looking down at my burn (getting better by the hour, thank you all for your well-wishing) and thinking how I’d even have a hard time doing this to my characters. I’m really good at messing with their social lives, their economic safety and their romantic relationships. But real physical and emotional pain is so… painful, so messy. Real pain must be lived around and it’s inconvenient and burdensome.

I don’t want people to die, or to be seriously hurt, or to not make it out of the story. But these things need to happen for people to grow – it’s part of the point of fiction, isn’t it? We get to live some horrible event through the characters, learning what we’d do or what we wouldn’t do in that circumstance. At least, that’s what I do.

Then I go read books by Jim Butcher. That guy crafts some of the most likable characters I’ve ever met, and then he does things I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy to them. The brave and skilled swordsman who holds off an invading army by himself so the hero of the book can get free? He gets his head chopped off. The wizard Dresden burns his hand to the bone invading a demon’s lair to kill her and her minions, but then it turns out she wasn’t even home, and she survives. An entire city that holds the wealth and history of the nation burns instead of being taken by an evil army.

Gods, what courage.

How does one so carefully craft such full and incredible characters just to have them picked off in cruel and sometimes meaningless ways? Because life is like that, isn’t it. Sometimes we die throwing ourselves on a bomb that wouldn’t have exploded otherwise. Sometimes the most evil character at the beginning survives to the end while all the good people fall away. Sometimes that character saves everything for all the wrong reasons.

Part of my job as a writer is to make these terrible and sometimes senseless things happen on the page so we can deal with them when they happen in real life. It’s my job, also, to help make sense of it, to move on and forward with a sense of hope. It’s my characters’ job to be likable and flawed and good when you expect them to be bad, and to throw themselves into situations where they’ll get hurt. And sometimes they’ll get themselves dead.

It’s what makes a good story. Even if I’m not writing about life-threatening danger (rare), change threatens the life of the person changing. Being asked to invite love or friendship in, or to let go of someone held dear – it’s like a small death. And resurrection.

And if our characters are tiny fragments of ourselves cultivated and given lives of their own, then killing and hurting them or even letting them make terrible mistakes is like allowing ourselves to not be perfect, allowing ourselves to accept that death and pain are inevitable, and to go into the fire of life willing to be burned. We let ourselves burn to tell the story and in some small way, we save ourselves in the process.

I’ll learn to be brave and get out of the way. I’ll let those I love (in my fiction) get burned, get hurt, throw themselves on bombs, make irrevocable mistakes. Because part of loving someone is allowing them their fate.

Telling their story is remembering to not look away when the worst happens.

Maybe if I can do that, I’ll allow some of my own fate to find me.

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5 thoughts on “Doing Terrible Things to Good (and bad) People

  1. Ooh, I love Jim Butcher! 🙂

    This was just brilliant: “And if our characters are tiny fragments of ourselves cultivated and given lives of their own, then killing and hurting them or even letting them make terrible mistakes is like allowing ourselves to not be perfect, allowing ourselves to accept that death and pain are inevitable, and to go into the fire of life willing to be burned. We let ourselves burn to tell the story and in some small way, we save ourselves in the process.”

    Glad your burn is feeling a bit better! That sounds awful.

  2. A beautifully written post.

    And what a powerful and poetic image: ‘Being asked to invite love or friendship in, or to let go of someone held dear – it’s like a small death. And resurrection.’

    It’s hard for me, too, of doing really awful things to my characters. But I’m working on it.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  3. Permit me to refer you to G.K. Chesterton, courtesy of The Fabulous Lorraine:
    http://blog.fabulouslorraine.com/2010/12/thought-about-being-on-fire.html

    The verse that keeps jumping out at me is this:

    Lo, blessed are our ears for they have heard;
    Yea, blessed are our eyes for they have seen:
    Let thunder break on man and beast and bird
    And the lightning. It is something to have been.

    And, thinking on what you’ve said, my response is too long for a comment, so I guess it’ll end up being a post. Thank you, as always, for inspiring thought and wondering.

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