Nancy: Carbon + Pressure = Diamonds

Rough_diamondI have to admit it: I’m jealous. It looks like you ladies had a lot of fun on Writing Sprints Friday. Micki had a fabulous week of writing, with over 4,000 new words. And Jilly has come up not only with a new story, but a whole new world and possible trilogy.

Meanwhile, over here, I’ve been subsumed by the non-writing world and have only managed to peck around the edges of my Victorian romance series. And I’ve driven into some well-worn ditches while I’ve been at it.

For instance, I realized that once again I’m coddling my heroine. I can’t help it. I love my characters. I brought them into this world, and I feel responsible for them. I don’t want life to be hard for them. Which makes for hella boring fiction.

Character growth is fundamental to most fiction stories. And how do you make characters grow? Put them under pressure and watch how they react and adapt. And change. And grow into beautiful diamonds. As Chuck Wendig has written in The Kick-Ass Writer, “You as storyteller are a malevolent presence blocking the character’s bliss.”

But what if you’re not feeling the malevolence? What’s an overprotective writer to do? For me, the best thing to do is stop counting on myself to do right by the story, which inevitably means doing wrong –  at least temporarily – by the characters. Instead, I get out of the story for a while and come at my characters not in their world, but in mine.

To create pressure on my much-coddled heroine in my last manuscript, I tried some exercises in Donald Maas’s Writing 21st Century Fiction. I didn’t have any aha moments until I came across a series of questions at the end of a chapter about Inner Journey.

The first question that caught my attention was, “What was your character’s worst mistake?” This one was easy for me. My heroine made a bad choice years earlier that still haunts her, informs her view of herself, and drives her away from the hero and other people she loves.

Then there was an instruction: “Have [the protagonist] now disclose the truth.” Hmm. This could work. She could tell one of her friends. Or her beloved, doting aunt. Maybe even her mother. Someone who could help her see things differently and perhaps even get past the shame.

The next question: “To whom would your protagonist least like to confess?” SO easy. Her father. She spends her life trying to live up to his expectations of her and feels she’s always lacking, always disappointing him. If he were to find out her secret, it would confirm his worst suspicion about her – that she isn’t worthy.

Then Mr. Maas’s instruction: “That’s her confessor.”

Wait…what, now???

My first thought was that this just wasn’t the exercise for this protagonist. And yet…This one stuck with me. I started turning over this possibility in my head. And I started to make a list of my own follow-up questions.

What if she did tell her father? Her worst fears would come true. He would think less of her, would distance himself from her.

What would happen next? Publicly, he would never renounce her because he wouldn’t want to attach scandal to the family name. But privately, he would shun her.

Where would their relationship be at the end of the book and how would that affect her? The relationship would be strained and unresolved. In the protagonist would, on some level, be heartbroken. She would have to find the strength to forge a new life without the safety net of her family. In fact, the chasm between them would be so wide, it would affect other characters and their stories, like her brother, who is the hero in the next book of the series.

Writing that  scene with the protagonist’s heart-wrenching confession and her father’s cold, cruel response to it was painful. But it was also just the gut-punch the story and the character needed.

Do you have trouble chasing your protagonists up trees and shooting at them? What cruel things have you done to burst the bubble of a protagonist’s too-perfect world?

4 thoughts on “Nancy: Carbon + Pressure = Diamonds

  1. That’s a great exercise Nancy and it sounds like it has really helped with your story. I too have trouble with protecting my characters too much. This has me thinking about a confession my own hero makes and wondering if perhaps I have him confessing to the wrong person. Off to do a little questioning of my own.

    Thanks.

  2. After reading Tiffany’s post, I got to thinking that one way to emotional truth is to let characters into your stories who are not lovable. The Shining had a homicidal father; lot of emotional truth and gut-punching there. Michille’s story, Antigone Rising really opened my eyes to how powerful a loving yet conflicted father-son relationship can be.

    In Little Women, Alcott had to be brave enough to let a beloved character die. IIRC, she really did have a sister die, and of course Dead Sister would automatically get angel-on-earth status. Lots and lots of stories did this in the 19th century with consumption. I think our 21st century equivalent is cancer. Fault In Our Stars, for example.

    I’m not that brave of a writer. Yet, anyway. I don’t want to write the story of a man descending into madness. I don’t want characters dying just so I can find the right words to deliver an emotional gut-punch to the reader. So far, my Girls haven’t tried to drag any onto the stage. I don’t know what I’d do if they did.

    There are these little gut-punches, though. The normal stuff that leaves lasting scars on our souls.

    I ran across an interview recently where a singer quoted a Philip Larkin poem. Talk about gut-punch writing!

    “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

    “But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
    Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

    “Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.”

    Of course, that’s a young person’s point of view. I think. Anyway, I’m glad I had kids, and I’m sure I discovered new and exciting ways to make their lives pure living hell. I don’t repeat the same old mistakes, oh, no, not me . . . .

  3. I know what you mean about coddling the heroine, Nancy, I’ve done that myself too many times to count. There’s ways to get around that, though—for example, you can have your h/h work together to solve a common problem. Then all they really have to do is normal compromise-type stuff, not major soul-searching, life-altering conflict.

    The best thing I did in a book to challenge a character was have her do something that she knew was wrong but thought she had a dispensation for. Then she didn’t have the dispensation after all, so she went to prison for her actions, which changed her irrevocably and will continue to resonate if I write more in the series. 🙂 And it was super fun to write, although I cried sometimes while I was sitting there typing. That poor young woman! The pain and suffering I put her through! But she captures the heart of the FBI agent who arrested her, so that’s also fun.

  4. That sounds like a good book, Nancy, and glad you found a deep, juicy challenge for your heroine. I am definitely over-protective of my heroines and while I want my characters to suffer and struggle and strive, I want their battles to be fun to read about so there’s been no on-the-page death or serious illness for me so far.

    Your timing is brilliant, though. The new story I’ve given myself a couple of weeks to play with has life or death stakes. I lay in bed last night wondering if I could do it because there’s going to be a lot of malevolence between these characters and their bliss, and that doesn’t come easily for me. In fact it scares the pants off me. That’s an excellent reason to try, though, right? If I get stuck, I’ll think of Kay, crying as she sent her poor heroine to prison 🙂 .

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