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Write What Scares You

In real life I’m a weirdly wired person, one of those who, in the time of hunter gatherers would have been called “sabertooth lunch.”  By which I mean I run towards that which scares me.  (This almost killed me a couple of times.  But it might have saved my life another couple of times.  So on the whole it’s neutral.)

In writing OTOH I’m the greatest wuss that ever lived.  Oh, not about writing death and blood and violence.  I can do those, though I’m just learning to write them well.  About writing emotion.

Part of this is that I’m one of those people who, when asked if they’re in pain pauses and thinks about it, because I’m so good at suppressing it.  You see, I’ve been ill, one way or another most of my life, and at some point you get tired of it, so you learn not to display pain, or weakness for that matter.  This is particularly true in school where rules of barbarism apply and a sickly kid is always a target.

The other part is that it feels …. indecent to delve into the pain or fear or even physical hurt of my characters.  I’m not sure where that comes from. It might be because the North of Portugal is influenced by British culture, and I was taught all the virtues of a stiff upper lip.  Or it might be because I know what the characters are going through and feel it so intensely that to expose them to the readers in their vulnerability seems like an act of betrayal.

This fear is so strong, that I prefer to write horror, and often did, even though horror frankly bores me or depresses me by turns.  (Though I’ve enjoyed some great horror of the non-gross out kind.  The Veldt. Don’t Look Now.)

Because I made every mistake twice and invented some new mistakes to make, I managed to elide all of the emotions out of my novels for a long time (to be fair this kept them nice and short.) Then I managed to put the emotions in, but rush through them.

And it wasn’t just the emotions, oh, no. If my character got badly hurt, I glossed over it with a joke and moved on to his being all strong and stuff.

Weirdly I managed to publish several stories in this phase.  Novels even. The emotions are there, sort of, but they are so well covered in pretty words that I don’t feel like I’m dancing naked in public.  Beautiful words, for me at least, can be a distancing device.

Then around the time I wrote Darkship Thieves (which was way before it was published) I started letting my characters get hurt, and feel it, and admit to human weakness.

It’s now been, what? 30 books since then? And it still feels weird.  I still stop before every scene where the character is hurt and/or weak, and go “is this really needed?”

Is it?

I don’t know.  I think it is.  The older I get the more I think fiction works not in words but in emotions.  Short Stories or novels, they’re a “unit of emotion and experience.”  It takes you through an experience and you emerge on the other side having experienced all the emotions of it profoundly, and probably having been changed, at least a little.

In terms of response from the readers, I’ve found the books in which I let my characters feel and get hurt are the ones readers love best.

Now there is a fine line, and if you drag a sad sac, hurting and whining throughout the novel, people are going to get tired.  It’s kind of like having to listen to your elderly relative complain of his diseases or your teen relative of his failed romances.  You roll your eyes and wish they’d just get on with doing something.

You have to allow your character to suffer, but not to be utterly consumed by it.

You have to allow them to suffer but learn from it and move on.

However, you need the low points to fully experience the high points.  And a novel (or a short story, but particularly a novel) needs both to feel like a fully realized experience, one that remains with you.

So, if like me you’re afraid of showing emotion and letting your character get hurt, run towards what scares you… and write it.

 

21 Comments
  1. This was timely. Thank you, Sarah.

    April 18, 2018
  2. Laura M #

    The reaction is part of the story. When a hypothetical person indulges in a bit of gossip, the following is not an unknown part of the exchange:

    A: regales B with outlandish tale of what happened at the meeting that morning.
    B: (with hand at mouth) “He didn’t!”
    A: “He sure did.’
    B: “What happened next? Did Lucy say anything? Did she seem mad?”

    Some hypothetical people want to know these things.

    April 18, 2018
  3. Of course, this is step two. First you have to allow your character, with whom you have fallen in love, be hurt. (The flip side is that, no, you cannot allow full rein to your enjoyment of doing nasty things to your villain. At least not for publication. I have, when in a bad mood, done some things to them that would cause the Marquis to blench.)

    April 18, 2018
  4. Good advice. Then again, I took the earlier advice about “torturing your darlings” to heart. I am not a nice writer when it comes to my characters. So I guess emotion is something else to add to the mix…. *chortles evilly*

    April 18, 2018
  5. Luke #

    Emotions are like thermonuclear weapons.
    They’re ridiculously powerful, it’s arguable that we’d be better off without them, and the less time you spend obsessing about them the happier you’re likely to be.

    😀
    (Deflecting with self-depreciating humor? It’s practically reflexive. )

    April 18, 2018
  6. TRX #

    I’m not an emotional type, and I tend to view writing about emotion as a waste of space if it takes more than two or three words.

    I once read a review of Jack Vance’s Demon Princes series. The reviewer ragged on the protagonist character, who she called “an emotionless robot.” No, Kirth Gersen showed plenty of emotion, but apparently not enough to satisfy her.

    On the other tentacle we have the likes of Robert Ludlum, whose “Jason Bourne” novels went from ridiculous to unreadable. Every few pages poor Jason has a complete emotional meltdown over something a spy/assassin/bad dude ought not to even notice, much less freak out over.

    In other novels, my reaction usually swings between “suck it up, buttercup” and “the author should have put this character out of its misery.”

    Please. “Less is more.” Emotional characters are like pepper on food. A little is good. A lot usually isn’t.

    April 18, 2018
  7. Christopher M. Chupik #

    A character can suffer, but there has to be a point to it all, and ultimately have it lead to something better.

    April 18, 2018
    • Exactly. Otherwise it’s just an exercise in literary sado-masochism on the part of the author.

      April 18, 2018
      • THIS.

        April 18, 2018
      • snelson134 #

        That sentence sums up why I could never buy into predestination… just add appropriate capital letters,

        April 19, 2018
  8. A character can also display a tight rein on their emotions, but that has fallout. You suppress your emotions too long, they come out in unexpected ways. I’m relying on my teenaged experience for that one—I got really good at hiding my emotions, and it took a lot of digging to get them out once I’d realized the problem. (Danged near broke myself in college, FWIW. A certain amount of emotion is healthy.)

    April 18, 2018
  9. Draven #

    Then I’d end up writing totalitarian socialist h*llholes, or SF horror…

    April 18, 2018
    • Note I write a lot of those, and my characters resisting them, but I meant more along forms of expression.

      April 18, 2018
      • Draven #

        heck, one of my long-running stories that i really should write is BOTH.

        April 18, 2018
  10. I saw how to make a certain situation much more devastating to my heroine and am struggling to write it, because I really don’t want to “virtually” live through the emotions it will cause in her. Even though I know how she gets out of it and even though she will live happily ever after and etc, etc, etc. And even though I know that boring books are boring and no-one reads them.

    April 18, 2018
    • I struggle to write scenes for this reason, often. I’d like to tell you they’re more powerful when read. Looking at my statements, no. BUT if the story demands it…

      April 18, 2018
  11. I’m trying for tip-of-the-iceberg writing (whether I’m achieving it or not is another matter). A few words can imply things that go much deeper, and hopefully resonate with the audience enough to evoke emotion in them, while not coming across as maudlin or over-the-top.

    Even very small things can work, if they’re in the right setting – a short phrase from an otherwise taciturn character, a touch, an expression, a contrasting detail – well, that stuff works on me; granted, I’ve been known to cry at long distance phone commercials. Though I’ve come across things where I’m clearly meant to cry and I’ve come up empty (all of them modern works, Hollywood or literary or otherwise).

    April 18, 2018
    • Agatha Christie was absolutely a master evoking certain places without very much actual detail. I was looking at one of her books that featured an archeological dig and it was astonishing how little she actually said compared to how completely flavored the book was.

      April 18, 2018
  12. 23skidoo

    April 18, 2018
  13. If I haven’t made myself cry at least once while writing a story, it’s not finished yet. I consider myself pretty good at writing pain–it’s just how my talent runs, like some people are natural comics and others have a gift for horror. For me, the real trick in describing pain, either physical or emotional, is to deliver it sideways, because it’s easy to armor yourself against the big blows, it’s the ones you don’t expect that slip through your defenses.

    For example, in Cannibal Hearts the main character loses a close friend who is also his landlord. The day after it happens, my character sees her ashtray sitting on the back porch of the house, and he puts it inside because he can’t stand to either look at it sitting there or empty it. That’s the kind of thing that hits people after a loss, the little details.

    When describing physical injury I generally don’t try to describe the injury directly. Instead I wait until the character tries to use the affected part and then talk about how it doesn’t work right. Because that’s usually how the body reacts to damage–you don’t know how bad it is until you move.

    On the other hand, I have a real problem describing happiness. Luckily, it’s a lot easier to write stories in which nobody is happy than it is to write stories in which nobody gets hurt.

    April 18, 2018

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