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?”
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.