I 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.”
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?