Monday, December 5, 2011

Overprotecting your characters

I have a tendency to overprotect my MCs. They are my little cacti - I spend so much time nurturing them, pruning them into the perfect shape with just enough soil and a cute decorated pot, that I don't want to mess them up. I'm not going to put my delicate little cacti out in the desert, do you know what lives out there? Lizards and cow bones, if I believe every western movie I've ever seen. And it's hot, and animals eat their delicious buds. No no no, not for my little cacti.

The problem with that mentality is that cacti are supposed to live in the desert. They are supposed to survive the heat and get their little buds eaten and hang out with cow bones. And literary characters are supposed to get in trouble. They're supposed to struggle and fail and get threatened by evil villains. That's what makes them interesting to follow for 300+ pages.

But when we get so attached to our characters, we sometimes do them (and the story) a disservice by protecting them from bad things. My critique group recently discussed a YA piece in which the MC struggles with being in love with her best friend. She has such a history with the guy that it breaks her heart to see him go out with other girls. The problem with the story is that we didn't get any of that history, so as a reader I didn't understand how he was breaking her heart. I knew they had a history, but without seeing it I couldn't experience the MC's pain.

Turns out, my critique partner was so concerned with protecting her MC from that hurt that she didn't allow the MC to show us that pain. She shielded the MC from reliving the past hurts, which meant we as the readers didn't get to see them, either. The writer knew them perfectly, but didn't share. As a reader, I needed to live through those moments with the character, I needed to hurt with her. It was the only way I was going to feel as shaky and defensive against him in the present as the MC does.

I'm not innocent in this whole scenario, either. In one of my earlier manuscripts, a beta reader of mine gave me some of the most helpful feedback that I've ever received, and that I've tried to carry through my future work: he told me that he always knew my character was safe. Even when she was in the most dire of situations - and believe me, they were dire - he knew she would get free. Something about the way I wrote the scenes, the way I overempowered her, broke the tension of scene. Sure, she's trapped, but we know she's going to get free. There wasn't any urgency to it.

So now I fight that need to save my character. They're supposed to be in trouble, that's why I'm writing about them. And even if I am going to save them, it shouldn't be obvious how. And they might not escape without a few scrapes or a broken heart. Oooor, they might not escape at all...

Do you overprotect your characters? Or do you enjoy torturing them even more?


Dianne K. Salerni said...

A timely reminder for me as I head into revisions on a certain manuscript. I do tend to protect my characters too much, drawing back from the things that really hurt.

I need to get meaner.

Tere Kirkland said...

I don't "enjoy" torturing them, but I am getting awfully good at putting them in constant peril. ;)

It helps me to plot more, makes it easier to face the inevitable disaster, but I try to focus on keeping the tension high whether my characters are in danger or not.

I loved Kristin Cashore's Fire, but Graceling, not so much. Katsa was just so invulnerable, I was never afraid for her. And I figured she'd get her "happily ever after" in the end. But Fire kept me guessing throughout.

So I have high hopes for Bitterblue!

Christina Lee said...

Yeah, sometimes but gotten much better at it (as long as I know the outcome is good)!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I'm a torturer. Everyone is tortured, including the antagonist. It's just too much fun.

Okay, I'll admit I do feel their pain when I torture them. It's hard not to. I'm human.

Matthew MacNish said...

Oh man, I do this too. I am way too nice to them! I'm trying to fix it in revision, though.

mshatch said...

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Caryn Caldwell said...

I love this! I think you're right, too. It's so easy to overprotect our characters. I figured plotting instead of pantsing might help, but maybe it doesn't? I listened to a podcast once where they made a list of fifty ways to torture your characters. Some were very general (give them something they love, then take it away)and some were specific to a particular story. The upshot, though, is that whenever I fear I'm protecting my characters, or I need to inject a bit of tension, I open a new document and list as many different ways as I can for this scene to go wrong or for something bad to happen. Then I pick the best one(s) from the list. It really seems to help.