One day, you’re writing along, oh-so-innocently, and then you see, off in the distance, the looming train wreck that your characters, even more innocent than you, are about to encounter. You can see it coming; there’s no stopping it, unless you stop the story entirely, and you’re a writer, goshdarnit!- you’d sooner cut off a leg than quit writing. Your character is blissfully unaware their life is about to become a shambles, a sweet summer child skipping across the grass, their heart full of joy, warm and laughing and thinking these days will never end. You laugh along with them, a parent laughing with their child, and you might even begin to believe it, too; maybe this time of joy will go on forever.
But a shadow creeps over the plot and your beloved story-people. Clouds gather, thunder rumbles in the distance. They, and you, are about to experience Conflict and its unfortunately necessary companion Character Development.
Lightning crackles and rain falls- or worse, snow. Conflict is upon you, and because you didn’t feel bad enough about the whole mess, you’re keenly aware that you brought this on yourself. Why didn’t you listen to your mother, and take up a safe and steady career, like shark-taming or ice-road trucking? But you’re a writer, goshdarnit, and you keep going, pushing your angry, depressed, or shocked characters along the path.
You and your characters begin to wonder if maybe the darkness will never end. Maybe the sun was only an illusion. Maybe the days of joy never really existed. All is dim and weary as you trudge through the mire. And like a parent hearing their child cry, and being unable to soothe them, your heart breaks for the person you created, and you tell yourself suffering is good for both of you, over and over, just so you have the strength to keep going.
Then one day, a beam of sunlight breaks through the clouds, and hope is rekindled. You’ve fought through Conflict! Character Development, alas, is still trundling along beside you, the stray dog you picked up along the way. Just in time for the story to end, and you, the writer, to move on to the next one.
This is the authorial rollercoaster, a super-duper official term to describe the weird mix of feelings that some authors get when they put their characters through the mill. Very official, I tell you. I made it up yesterday.
But it’s merely a new phrase to describe an old concept. Most writers develop some level of emotional investment in their characters, or, if you’re me, hand off uncomfortable emotions to their characters as catharsis. Certain characters tug on the heartstrings more than others, and the longer I spend with a character, the greater the investment- though that investment can fade over time; I have a particular character that saved my sanity for quite a while but is now mostly relegated to nostalgia. I might go back to that particular universe someday, now that I actually know how to write and might be able to do justice to it, but I have other universes to play in and characters to torment. Though ‘torment’ might be the wrong word, since I’m sharing in a lot of these characters’ emotions; maybe I should explore characters and their emotions instead.
For better or worse, they’re not real, just realistic, and following these characters on their journeys is a lot easier than going on that specific journey myself. At least I can walk away from the computer and take a break.
I never did like rollercoasters, after all. Maybe shark-taming would have been a better choice. And since there aren’t many sharks in this part of the world, I’m going to ride my horse.
I like the explanation! I think you have invented a wonderful phrase. And Rollercoasters give me headaches.
No pain, no gain. My husband is far more squeamish than I am about beating up my characters, and keeps complaining about it. And, yes, I do get emotionally invested in them.
How okay I am with characters’ misfortunes depends on the character and the type of misfortune, I guess. I hate cringey social situations IRL and in movies, though I tolerate them better in print. I don’t like inflicting them on any of my characters. I’m not super fond of torturing my female characters physically or psychologically, but will happily heap all kinds of anguish on the male ones. (I think possibly due to watching too many schlocky b-movies from all over the world where the token female doesn’t have much personality beyond suffering or being threatened).
I had a character whose backstory was that she had lost her husband and all but one of her many children in a fight. Except that it’s now front story and I have to put in her children. At least some indication of their existence.
Bummer, that sort of thing is the worst part.
I’ve vented some things, and worked through some very bad things, using characters in my fiction. There are a few scenes that hurt me to read, because I know what’s behind them. OTOH they all fit the character and the situation, so it’s not “dumping” on an otherwise innocent character who was just standing there on the page corner, minding his own business. 😉
I suspect there are writers who don’t get invested in characters, but I have trouble imagining myself in that position. If I’m sinking enough energy into understanding this fictional person, and writing what he’s going to do next, he’d better be worth it. Even the bad guys, although there sometimes it’s morbid curiosity or “you know, this dude really deserves to have a mountain dropped on him. Which means the readers need to know why,” and reaching for the SMITE button.