Torturing Your Darlings

Oh, no, you’ll say, Sarah has been reading regency romances again.  You wouldn’t be wrong, though Sarah has moved from this to “Biographies of founding fathers” following a line from an article she read for the current (historical) project.

I hit the regency romances whenever I’m under crunch, which I am right now.  Now there are levels in regency romance.  I’d compare Madeleine Hunter to any writer of any genre (even if I flip past the sex scenes.)

Most of the regencies aren’t like that, though. Most of them are fairly light fare, and therefore something good to read while I’m trying to finish a book.  Because the worst part of being mid book is when you get caught by a novel (someone else’s novel) and lose a day of work.  When you’re under crunch deadline, that can kill you.

Sometimes I read cozy mysteries for the same purpose.  But this time what I got caught by was regencies.  Mostly because most of the cozies I start recently have characters that annoy me, not entertain me.  (And yep, a lot of it is political.  It’s fine to call your cat Chairman Meow, but when you explain it’s because you admire the mass murderer on whom the name is based, the book is going to take flying lessons against the nearest wall. (Used, paper book, thank heavens.) And I’m not going to believe you want to solve a murder, because you clearly have NO moral compass.)

So I’ve been reading regencies and most of them are from KULL (Kindle Unlimited Lending Library.)  This is not as terrible as the “tsunami of crap” prophets believed it would be (and romance is the closest you get to their prediction.)  As with most books, I find I reject about half of them.  90% if you count reading blurb as rejecting.  It gets to “Oh, yawn, that, really?”  And the book goes back, or never gets loaned.

However what KULL has more of than other venues is it has a higher proportions of very “new” novelists.  Which means I run into ONE problem that traditional publishers guarded against.  (NO, not spelling or punctuation.  Have you read traditional books lately?)

Every one of us starts at a place our books have virtually no plot.  We think they do, but they don’t.  They don’t even rise to Mary Sue levels.

In Mary Sue/Marty Stu, the character is wonderful and whatever he/she touches is solved/improved/etc.

But in most beginner novels, nothing happens.  At least nothing of consequence.

In most regencies with this problem, for instance, I find myself looking in on the life of a perfect, well behaved miss, who floats through the days going to balls and talking to one or two very well behaved suitors.  If it’s two we’re supposed to care passionately about whom she’ll choose.

Only we don’t.  Mostly it feels like I’m listening to incredibly boring gossip.  I mean, my life is more interesting than theirs.  At least there’s something at stake.

But Sarah, you’ll say, what about escapism?  We thought you were for escapism and ludic enjoyment of stories.

I am, but here’s the thing: books are different.  I’ve told  you before, at least if you took a workshop with me, that the problem with a character opening the book with crying and telling you everything that is wrong with their lives, is that the characters are like strangers who just rang your doorbell.  If a stranger rings your doorbell and dissolves into tears and tells you he lost his job, his girlfriend left him, and his pet aardvark died, you’re going to slam the door in his face, hide behind the sofa, and shout that you’re not home.

Trust me, it’s not any better if your character is telling them about an incredibly complex, non-fraught routine.  I know this experience because grandma to her dying month kept up correspondence with family all over the world.  As in, she wrote to them every week, and they wrote back.  Invaluable while it lasted, since both she and grandad quite literally had family all over the world.  The problem was many of these people had emigrated in HER MOTHER’S generation.  Grandma had an attachment to them because she remembered them from when she was young, and of course their kids and grandkids interested her because she remembered cousin so and so and the brother in law of aunt so and so.  (And the family has bizarre nicknames.  Really Potato Bug?)

To me on the other hand, these were names I couldn’t remember and events I had no interest in, poured at me EVERY week when I came to have tea with grandma.  I endured it because I loved grandma, but my eyes acquired a fixed expression and sometimes I was doing homework at the back of my mind, just to escape.

These books are a lot like that.  These people might be good people and relatively interesting if I KNEW them.  Only I don’t know them.  I just hear about them going to balls and parties, and….  And you know the writer is having so much fun with her (usually) imaginary friends, that she (usually.  There are males who write regencies, but they’re few) doesn’t realize she’s boring the reader out of his/her/its/aardvark’s mind.

So how to solve that?  Easy.  Torture your characters.

No, I don’t mean physically.  While you’ll acquire a bespoke audience, if your round of balls and parties develops sessions with gags and whip– Never mind.  Considering fifty shades of grey, go for it.  Torture your characters that way if you can stomach it.  I just have no more interest in it than in parties.  So moving right along–

What I mean is your characters have to have problems.  You have to put them in a situation where they so much want or need something that they have to bestir themselves to get it.  And it’s not easy to get!

But Sarah, you say, what about escapism?  Fun?

Well, Pride and Prejudice is arguably Austen’s best loved book, (please, not the movie, and not the fifties mini-series in which it’s set in the Victorian era, and where it’s all about the slapstick and hats) and it is escapism, in the sense that it created a dream-regency many women imagine themselves in.  Also, you know it’s going to end well.  I mean, that’s a great advantage of romances.

But good Lord, when it starts out, no one there is in a good place.  If you don’t understand the problem five daughters with virtually no dowry (the estate being entailed away from them) presented, you need to brush up on your regency. The girls were too high-born to be maids or other low female employment, too uneducated to be governesses.  Their mother is herself too low born (and silly) to know how to creditably present them in ANY society.  Their father, even should he save and give them a London season in which to find husbands, knows that due to their mother’s origins in trade, they’re unlikely to be invited to the best balls or get vouchers for Almacks.  This in turn means they will not find the best husbands.  In fact, the most LIKELY outcome for the five girls is ending up spinsters living in extremely reduced circumstances, with perhaps some help from kindly relations.  In fact, the dream outcome is that one of them marries someone on the fringes of “respectable” — say a business man or a minor parson — and can help her other four sisters, a little, so they don’t starve as poor spinsters.

This is what lends interest to everything.  You understand why their mother has been throwing Jane at junior businessmen since the girl was 15.  You understand why Mr. Bingley is such a dream catch, and also why it feels like aiming at the moon. You understand how much Lizzie must have despised Mr. Collins to turn him down.  You even understand Lydia, the youngest and most impetuous sister, risking it all to escape the horrible future that seems inevitable.

This makes it interesting to read about their balls and dinners.  And you can dream that you too, with no connections or fortune, could have captured Mr. Darcy.

But the danger and the need MUST be there, to keep the reader interested in the good stuff.

Remember that.  In every genre remember that.  Start with your character in trouble.

Now I’ve told you before, and it’s true, that the “problem” in the first chapter need not be the problem that carries the book.  Mostly because I want to avoid the “too many problems, I can’t read this” but also because some problems are too complex to put all in the first chapter.

Take Pride and Prejudice again.  (I recommend the A & E series, if you just want to watch it.)  The “Problem” in the first chapter is that rich men have come to town and Mr. Bennet refuses to visit them.  (Probably a combination of introversion and not wanting to see what his wife will do to get their attention for his daughters.)  We only realize the bind they’re in gradually, though we understand it fully by the time the courting is underway. And certainly by the time of major setbacks.

Go through it, either book (It’s a short book) and tally how problems are revealed, from their money issues to their mother’s disposition.

Yes, I know it’s a regency romance.  It’s also a superbly plotted book.  And you can think of your own twists that match those but fit things like… science fiction, or fantasy, and have nothing to do with romance (unless you want to.) Different problems, different solutions, but the way the problems are introduced is important.

Go do it because nothing irks me more than a good writer, with good word and scene sense who fails to have anything INTERESTING happen in her/his/its/dragon’s book.

Yes, character based books are based on the characters.  But the characters never show their range unless they have real problems and something interesting happens to them.  And just having them go to parties, or, in present day, have breakfast and drive around shopping, does not show us their range, their abilities or their CHARACTER.

Plot, which of necessity is the solving of problems (and the problem needs to be big enough to support a long story, when it comes to novels) is the honing stone against which the character is sharpened.  And plot is necessarily the RESULT of the character’s circumstances, hopes, fears and range.  A Sherlock Holmes novel will look quite different if you drop Miss Marple in it.  Pride and Prejudice would be a different beast if all the sisters were as silly as Lydia.

Now go think about how to torture your characters and put their behind in a vise grip metaphorically speaking (Literally it’s that fifty shades thing again.)  And make it good.


47 thoughts on “Torturing Your Darlings

  1. While not an author, I’d say that you shouldn’t “make it too easy” for the character to solve their problem (or make it “too difficult”).

    IMO part of the problem of the “Mary Sue” (and her male counterpart) is that while they have problems, the problems “go away” very quickly.

    IE the reader wants the character to “work at solving the problem”. (See them sweat for the solution.)

    Of course, IMO part of the “too difficult” thing is that the author may be tempted to “think the character can’t win so I’ll bring somebody in to save them”.

  2. Discussions like this remind me of Larry Niven’s “Ringworld.” Niven was so taken with his Grand Vision that nothing actually *happens* in the book. And it was one of the first books where I noticed it just… stopped. Like the last few pages had fallen out.

    1. It is important to give the characters something to do. Otherwise, they sit around and think up trouble.

      1. Mine just look at me and blink. Unless they’re actively running from an obvious threat, they’d much rather sit on the couch and drink beer.

    2. Yes! I was so disappointed when I read Ringword, for just this reason (plus I wanted the heroine to die so much, but that’s another problem).

  3. Torturing your characters is one of those things that I think a lot of writers sort of get intuitively, but most readers don’t. For instance, when I’m reading I’ll read about a character gong through something horrible, and I think, “Oh god, why would you do that?” But as a writing, I get going and suddenly it’s all, “And his parents were murdered, and his dog died, and the girl he likes doesn’t like him.”

    1. True that readers sometimes “don’t get it” until they read a book where “nothing bad” (ie interesting) happens to the Main Characters.

      Note, years ago I read somebody’s story that sounded like “Clark Kent sees a problem and easily solves it by becoming Superman (without a hard fight)”.

        1. Well, done wrongly it’s “Lois gets into trouble and Superman easily gets her out of trouble”. 😉

          Of course, if Lois is the “Main Character”, then it’s not her that solves her problem but Superman “buts in” to solve her problem.

          IE A character who is always being rescued by others isn’t IMO a strong character.

          1. Unless their actions are critical to the rescue happening or not. Like a leader and organizer who is stuck in prison, and organizes a series of escapes through messages to outside allies and to people they recruit.

            Probably couldn’t easily build a series around a character whose MO is to get captured, learn about their captors, and use that to destroy their enemy while orchestrating their release.

            1. Nod, the Main Character can be “rescued/helped” by others but has to be involved in some way in said rescue/assistance.

              One character that I read was in a position of “not knowing” which path (literally) to follow.

              But it was his decision to follow the advice of one of his friends (who was with him) that counted in his favor.

              1. being rescued from a physical problem can work if the _main_ story problem is still solved by the MC. Bonus points if that was made more difficult by being rescued. “Damn it, five more minutes and I’d have been out of the dungeon and riffling through his desk!!!! Now he’s moved and I have to start all over!!!”

      1. It has been said that Superman is the hardest character to write for, because he can do -anything.-

        1. Which is why, the writers introduced “super-villains” (who could match him), introduced his vulnerability to Green K & magic and also put him in situations where his powers couldn’t solve the problem (ie he had to think of the solution).

          1. On the bright side, it’s also why they turned Lex Luthor into a well intentioned extremist who actually has a valid point.

            Superman *is* the biggest threat to humanity in the DC Universe. Should he ever slip from being the Big Blue Boyscout, we’re in serious trouble.

            1. Well, not the greatest threat as there are beings more powerful than him.

              But he is the most powerful being known to most humans. 😉

        2. Superman must save the day 1) while following the laws and 2) he can’t control all the effects of his actions.

          I’d say the hardest person to write would be Professor Xavier. With every movie the first thing you have to address is: how to take the professor out of play?

      2. If the setting has enough character, I’m actually OK with a travelogue.

        Ringworld is as good an example as any, I suppose. Most of the traveling companions weren’t very interesting, but I still enjoyed the trip.

        1. A travelogue/picaresque/etc. is basically a story where the setting is a major character.

    2. The current matter I’m fiddling with has a lot of horrible things happening to very many people, but short on horrible things happening to a specific person because of that person’s choices. I thought I might have sorted that out with a vignette I did on Sunday, but the problem I had was the wrong length for the story I want to tell. (Probably also the wrong length for the vignette, as I did not develop things well.)

      Defining my problem, I need to clearly define the story, the character’s problem, and where the tension is coming from.

      1. IMHO the thing to avoid is making horrible things happen as part of some ideological principle. “If Only You People Weren’t So Stupid None Of This Would Have Happened.”

        Wars, for example, are horrible. Fighting a war is bad. Losing one however, is -so- much worse.

        Something else to consider, is how many horrible things can your main character survive, realistically? Because there’s a limit to what damage people can soak up in a given time period.

        That’s where a lot of stories fall down. MC is on their fifth serious beating this week, with unhealed fractures, and they are still moving forward? Nope. They’re in hospital with an IV stuck in them, still trying to get over the first beating.

        1. Well yes, you can’t “beat up on” your main character “too much” but you can have your main character seeing “bad sh*t” happening and wanting to stop the “bad sh*t” as long as it isn’t easy for the main character to stop it.

        2. I once read a detective series where the MC often “spat out a tooth” after a fistfight. Be the end of the series I figured he was on his second set of dentures.

        3. Yeah, you have to justify recovery time. Are you in a future world with good medical tech? Okay, that means a lot of injuries that would sideline a character today are fixable. But they have to get to that tech.

    3. “And his parents were murdered, and his dog died, and the girl he likes doesn’t like him.”

      So, just use contents from a country song to torture the characters? 😉

        1. [Laughs maniacally before pulling out a guitar]

          “Don’t plat that song, that achy-breaky song, I think it’s driving me insane…”

          1. Murder’s been committed
            Down on Music Row…

            (I’m not so fond of Pop with a twang. But then, I grew up with The Bakersfield Sound. Not very much Western on Country stations anymore. Not much Country, either.)

    4. For whatever reason, I’ve been in that rut for months. it was so bad I’d revise plots in other’s fiction to make it nicer. Worse, I’d realize it and try to stop. The breaking point happened when I trashed half of a stalled WIP where things were going along too nice, and had their neighbors burn them out. Haven’t integrated that in well enough to pull it out of the stall, but the thing is I’m having to work at it. Even my last short story, that popped into my head Thursday and was one of those you have to write to get out of your system, I had to work hard to make trouble.

  4. “What’s the worst thing that could happen to this character?” is always a good brainstorming point. You don’t have to go there, necessarily, but it might be the right direction.

  5. OT: The writer John Erickson, of “Hank the Cowdog,” lost his home in the wildfires yesterday. Sometimes real life just stinks.

  6. Good advice. I pity that poor SOB I have running through my head. No, not that one, the other poor bastard….

    1. Also Beren and Luthien. But B&L had hope running throughout (chiefly from a lot of aid from divine sources, Elvish magic and talking hounds).

      Turin was a perfect balance of someone who you like for his good qualities such as honor and compassion, even as you’re exasperated by his faults, such as his pride, stubbornness and quick temper. He was doomed by Morgoth from the start, but it didn’t take away Turin’s agency since his curse worked on Turin’s own faults.

      1. Turin, master of fate.
        Loved his story. One of my favorites. Haven’t read the expanded version because I’m pretty sure it will disappoint me, especially since I’ve heard from someone I trust that Christopher missed the point.

        1. If you’ve read the version in the Unfinished Tales, its mostly that, word for word.

  7. You got it.

    For multiple third person pov novel:

    Present first character; torture first pov character. Switch in next scene to second pov character; torture second character. Switch in next scene to third pov character; torture third character. (All three are now introduced – and hanging in irons.)

    Switch back to any and sundry of the three, in a suitable order, continue torturing. Otherwise, why would anyone read? I trust I do this.

  8. This is something that will, in particular, be poorly served by starting your practice on fanfiction…. all your readers are familiar enough with the characters to think of them as friends already, and will have nothing against reading about them going to endless parties.

    (Yeah, that’s what I did. :-P)

    1. I know. I saw people having issues transitioning from fanfic. Writers who do a lot of tie-in work get the same issue, even when htey’re experienced.

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