So, we’ve all heard the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s sort of laid the ground work for social equality, drawn the baseline of morality, and has helped keep all our egocentric selves (especially when we’re children) in check. Those who follow the Golden Rule are helping to maintain a safe society for all. And safety, in real life, is a good thing. It’s what we want. Safety First. Safety First is what they say.
But in the world of fiction, it’s only when rules are broken that things get interesting. And when it comes to creating believable characters, we must throw the Golden Rule out the window. For our characters it must always be Safety Last. Do unto characters what you would never dream of doing unto yourself.
Ever since my undergrad years, I’ve heard folks chanting the same mantra: Throw your character up a tree. Throw your character up a tree. Throw your character up a tree. And they mean it. Run your little darlings up the tallest tree you can find, and then throw stones at them. Have birds come along and peck at their faces—gouge their eyes out if you can stomach it (metaphorically speaking, of course…sort of).
I don’t know about you, but giving my characters a hard time is one of the hardest parts of writing for me. Here are some of the ways I’ve made it even harder on myself than it should be:
- I like them. I feel a particularly close connection with my main character (probably because I’m ‘writing what I know’) and I don’t want to see anything bad happen to them.
- It’s me. I’ve made the mistake of creating fictional projections of myself rather than true stand-alone characters. The result is that I am resistant to making myself go through the hardships I intended my characters to suffer. Repeat after me: It is not about you.
- I love them. Really. I have fraternized with my characters and need to create some emotional distance in order to establish a more professional relationship with them. I am aware that this will only sound sane to other writers.
- I’m weak. I’m too soft-hearted, avoid conflict like the plague and, overall, am sort of a gutless soul.
- It’s your fault. The Golden Rule has been so engrained in me that I’m just not used to treating people like crap. I like this excuse because I get to blame society for it.
Whatever the reason, I am constantly having to tell myself to go back in there and really let my characters have it. Even when I think I’ve created some great conflict, I always look back at a scene later and realize how I could make it even worse for them, raise the stakes one notch higher, and create even more intense…tension.
Let’s face it. As authors we are basically there to ruin our characters’ lives. But the wonderful thing is that we get to put them back together afterwards! Unless, of course, you are writing a tragedy. But we won’t even go there. For the most part, our characters are encountering all these hardships to be changed individuals by the end (or in order to change the world around them). This is a heroic feat. This is what I remind myself of when I am tempted to call the firefighter and rescue my character from his tree too early.
“This is for your own good,” I whisper, as I thrust the burning torch into the branches and watch them scramble higher. “This is for your own good.”
DISCUSSION: So what about you? Is it easy to throw your character up a tree and keep him/her there? What are some tactics you’ve learned?