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Pop quiz: what's the deadliest urge a writer can succumb to?

The worst thing we can do to the characters in our novels is be kind to them. Especially our main characters. The absolute worst thing we can do is make sure our characters never have to face any difficult problems or overcome any daunting obstacles.

Let me tell you about some unpublished books I’ve read lately. These are all books that I hope become published, because at their core each one has something really unique to offer. (For obvious reasons, you’ll understand that I can’t give you the titles or authors’ names.)

Book number one is a spy novel, a straight up cold-war era thriller. The main character has problems, sure, but they’re in his home life. His difficulties and challenges do not relate to the outer story goal of smuggling the you-know-what out of you-can-guess-where. As far as the potentially thrilling part of the thriller goes, the good guys’ plan pretty much went off without a hitch. I wasn’t thrilled.

Book number two is a young adult adventure, with a fantastic premise and setting. It’s really creative and unique. But this book’s main character doesn’t really have any problems. He’s smart, has a materially-comfortable life with loving parents, supportive friends, and ready access to all the tools, materials, and money needed to get the job done. Nothing significant ever goes wrong, and the insignificant things that do go wrong, never get worse. The result is that nothing is challenging, and his ultimate victory feels foreordained.

Both books fall flat. Both authors seem reluctant to let their main characters have it. I mean, really screw ‘em over. They seem unwilling to throw the characters into the frying pan, and when the characters jump out, have them land in a fire that happens to be built inside an even larger frying pan. That would be interesting, but that’s not what they did.

I understand this. I’ve done it myself in earlier novels that I can now see I need to go back and make worse before I send them out to agents.

We authors grow to love our characters. We have created them, thought obsessively about them, nurtured them in our minds. We have taken care of them, and as with anything one cares for we come to love them. It is only human not to want to hurt them or ever let anything bad happen to them.

This nurturing, parental urge, this above all we must resist. We have to let our characters get into trouble—real, serious trouble—so they can get themselves out. We have to let them get hurt, so they can overcome. We can’t coddle them as though they were toddlers. We can’t put gates across the stairs and padding on all the sharp coffee table corners. We can’t hover over them every second, waiting to snatch them out of trouble the instant danger looms.

Rather, we can, but if we do our characters won’t be interesting to anyone. What reader can really get behind a character that never struggles with his or her problems? What reader roots for a character who never encounters any problems to begin with? Not me, I’ll tell you that much.

So what about that third book? The protagonist in that one is a three year old girl, already someone an author is going to want to protect. But this toddler has not been coddled. No, the author has put her in a desperate and deeply destitute situation. She is so chronically malnourished she can’t walk, can’t even get out of her bed. Except her bed isn’t a regular bed, it’s just a wooden box with some filthy rags for padding. And the girl’s parents? They’re gone. They have abandoned her along with their homesteader’s log cabin, somewhere in the middle of the woods in 1865. The poor girl doesn’t even know her own name.

Problems? That girl’s got problems upon problems upon problems. Every one of them just breaks my heart. Every one of them is something that would make any lesser person give up.

But she doesn’t. She views her situation with every bit of naive optimism innate to any three-year-old child. She has a great attitude, an amazingly compelling voice, and she doesn’t give up. To see this utterly helpless little girl overcome her problems, that’s powerful stuff.

I root for her because it’s all I can do. What I want to do is reach into the book to help her. Of course, I can’t. I can only read her struggles, helplessly rooting for her to overcome. The very depth of her troubles makes me root for her as much, if not more, than I have for any character I’ve encountered in a New York Times bestselling book. And bear in mind, this is just in the book’s opening scene.

As a writer, isn’t that what we all want? Don’t we want our readers rooting for our main characters? Don’t we want them cheering when our heroes and heroines emerge victorious?

Of course we do. But that isn’t going to happen unless we make it hard. If we don’t make the obstacles seemingly insurmountable, the problems seemingly unsolvable, then we make our characters’ jobs too easy and their victories meaningless. We make the characters themselves boring and lifeless.

Oh, and we also make our novels un-publishable. I’m just saying...

September 17, 2009 22:54 UTC

Tags: character, problems, obstacles

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