Nineteenth in the 1K a Day Motivational Series, in which I talk about something that happened in the previous week that could have or did prevent me from writing a minimum of 1,000 words on a given day, or possibly talk about something that provided support to get me through the day. Or just rant about writing.
Last week I yammered on about the emotional turmoil that can come from writing about dark things happening to characters in your writing, and ways to avoid letting that emotional darkness affect your daily life.
So there’s a natural question that might come up to counter such a discussion: “If it’s traumatizing to write about, why put you and your characters through it?”
That’s a good question, and one I’ve considered often enough that it only seems fair to talk about it.
The core aspect of storytelling, at least to Western audiences, is conflict. There’s no arguing about this, it simply is the way our society has evolved to tell stories. A story has some kind of conflict. Sometimes that conflict is internal (man versus himself), sometimes it is social (man versus man), sometimes it is survival (man versus nature). There are endless variations to the types of conflicts, endless complexities that make them seem new and fresh as we come up with new things to add to the list of conflicts.
But if all storytelling is about conflict, why does it have to be traumatic for you and your characters?
It doesn’t. Some conflicts are minor, trivial, non-life-threatening. Maybe you wrote a story about a woman fighting with a vending machine because it took her last dollar and she just really needs that coffee and the whole world is against her because her boss hates her and
The story goes on. Nobody dies, nothing is tragic. But there’s an adage I’m about to yank out of the closet and dust off.
You have to kill your darlings.
That doesn’t mean literally murder your characters (sometimes it does). It means you have to take what’s precious to you, self-indulgent to you, and do away with it in your writing. Sometimes that means your characters, whom you love dearly otherwise why would you be writing about them, have things going a bit too easy for them. And you must stop that. The plan cannot execute perfectly. The villain cannot be defeated flawlessly. Sometimes people have to die, or suffer.
Sometimes you’re afraid to go dark to get your characters where they need to be. This is okay! But it’s also not okay. You can’t be afraid for these characters you love, you can’t feel an emotional connection with them, if everything’s always coming up Millhouse.
There are times in my writing when I realize that I’ve got a character whose goals and desires are being achieved too easily, without conflict, without drama. This is boring, and it also doesn’t reflect life. In life, no one gives you things for free. No one just hands you a book deal. Relationships have to be forged in the fires of conflict. That promotion you want? You have to work your fucking ass off to get it. That presentation that means your entire grade? You’ll kill yourself to do it.
This is conflict. This is struggle. This is life. And when you get something you want, someone else probably didn’t get something they wanted. Why? Because there was only one of those things to get and you got it.
So make life difficult for your characters. Push them above and beyond what they’re capable of handling and see what they do next. Maybe it’s not “dark” in the way I was talking about last week, but to see who a person really is, you must first break them out of their comfort and force them to make hard choices, to make snap decisions. If you won’t murder your darlings, no one will care enough to read about them.
So chase the conflict, make your characters fight for what they want, and always remember to write the hell on, writers.