Ever since writing and publishing my first (and some say best) novel, Principle Destiny, I have been haunted by one type of scene: Putting characters in harm’s way.
Generally I am quite compassionate. So, to make it hard for a character to have a happy and peaceful life does not come naturally. But I do it… some of my readers say I do it quite well. It’s hard, but I manage it… HOW?
One of my other personal aspects is a desire to drag readers through the difficult situations my characters face. Realistically, life is not often easy, nor peaceful. Happiness is fought-for, not granted, most of the time. So readers expect to be challenged. But I rarely think of the reader’s expectations. I write life, usually just as it happens to most people. Readers find they can easily see themselves in situations my characters experience. Danger begets hazards… and so it must, no matter how I personally feel about a character.
Broken bones, demonic possession, grief, sorrow, pain, mental agony… it all manages to happen, and sometimes even I am surprised by the results. For instance, In PD, when our beloved Princess decides to attack her assailant, rather than incapacitating him, she ends up in bad shape… and yet, as hot-headed and error-prone as that decision was, it had been building over months and months, and never could have been avoided. Then there is the rationale for the action that almost becomes her undoing… this did not come until some weeks later, when I realized that such a sacrifice, even borne on impulsiveness and poor judgement, served a larger purpose. Could my protagonist have changed her sire’s mind without physical damage from the attacker she had repeatedly complained to him about? I very much doubt it.
Scenes hardest to write? Any time I have to harm a character, even an antagonist, I have to work up to it in my mind, cast aside my doubts, and just write it as it might actually take place. Everything happens for a reason, even in a novel.
The follow-up question: But do I have to actually physically harm a character?
Nope… most of the worst damage done to characters , in my novels or others, is psychological. Physical damage can go away, usually. The broken bones heal, the scars fade, the blood clots, the black eye turns back to normal, and so on. Psychological harm must be coped with until it is conquered, both more rewarding, and often more intense for readers. Physical pain generates sympathy. Psychological pain generates empathy. For a writer, empathy is what we seek from our readers. If we have empathy towards our characters, we have interested readers. And this, above all, is what our craft is all about: Engaged and page-turning readers.
In that spirit, I’ll share a brief excerpt from Principle Destiny:
…When she came-to Skye was tending her wounds with the aid of warm water and the heat from a hot fire that he had built. She looked into his blue eyes, and suddenly she remembered. “ELIOS,” she screamed. “Where is he?”
Skye simply turned his head. He had built a pyre, and placed the body on it. Thankfully, to Alyssa’s mind, he hadn’t lit it.
Her tears began to flow again. “We have to take him home, Skye. His father would want that.” She sobbed, clinging to Skye with all her might. “Oh God,” she said through her tears. “He was such a good man. He gave his life to save me. I even asked him to go first.” She finally took a breath, but her sobs continued. “What have I done? I thought together we’d be safe. I shouldn’t have let him stay with me.”
Princess Alyssa has made an error in judgement, she believes, but it was just a twist of fate. She could no more see the future than avoid it. Yet a good friend and ally is now dead. She is in the throes of unimaginable distress and blames herself. Would we? Most likely.
How hard was it to write the scene, the precursor where Prince Elios is killed, and the days that follow in the Princess’s life? The build-up, when I realized it had to happen, was harder than doing it. But it took me half a day to accept and adjust to the idea.
I write thrillers… even when I don’t really plan on it. A long time has passed now, since novel-attempt number one, and the published books I have managed to produce. Is it any easier to put a character in harm’s way? Nope. I doubt, to be honest, it will ever be easier. But, even so, I cannot complain. The ability to weave an impactful story is a gift, and a privilege. To that end, I will always strive, difficulty aside.