Writer’s difficult decisions mirror human life

THE HARDEST PART OF WRITING…

is what you put your characters through, to tell your story.

Yes, this is what you created and delivered them for. They are your babies, but they were always meant for sorrow, because no good story avoids sorrow.

Writers of fiction are making a point: if I extract the relevant parts of human life, and clean them up so they are tidier and cleaner than the mess that can be real life, can I show that the story has a moral, something I’m trying to say?

There is so much to tell

that it is impossible to tell it all within the confines of the longest epic poem or novel series.

The clock starts counting seconds even before the birth, and doesn’t stop until reaching ‘The End.’

And still the writer, even the one who creates a world which encompasses the whole life of a character in one piece, must discard MOST of that life, and pick only a few high points, hoping to use those to tell you something.

Stories teach

So what will the writer choose to teach?

And what pieces of that character’s life will the writer use as salutary or insalubrious examples the Reader should consider following?

Not the boring parts, not necessarily the exciting parts.

But often the points where the character, a relative unknown to even the author at its conception, makes mistakes. BIG mistakes. Very BAD decisions.

And when we get to creating and writing those mistakes, we may suddenly find that we really wouldn’t have ever done this to our now-child if we had been thinking more clearly – because we love them, and this will HURT. A lot.

Not a bad place to be – as a parent or an author

Our writing choices are better if we care.

If we are going to hurt, damage, punish, instruct a character, it better be worth it.

To both of us.

But it is natural, first, for the author to flounder about, wondering if this torture can be bypassed, whether it is really necessary, whether we should be the ones to inflict the damage.

It’s a testament of a kind to Pride’s Children

that every single time I have hit this point, I have steeled myself, stuck to the original plan which came to me in one piece, ‘vouchsafed’ as I like to say only to me, and written through the pain (mine) and the sorrow (theirs) because that IS the story.

Characters become very real to you when you spend twenty years with them, which I will have spent sometime this year.

They also become more determined, and more pigheaded, more what you made them, more willing and able to carry the burden.

Like the actor chosen to play the villain, they have gotten enamored of their role, and are giving it everything they have.

They would be quite annoyed if the author watered down their part – which now belongs to them and is their chance to shine on stage.

I have enjoyed very much the preparation of Shakespearean actor Anthony Sher, which he writes about in The Year of the King, as he prepares for the role of King Lear. Whether the king is the true villain of the play or not, his decisions are momentous and affect the lives of all the other characters.

Actors live for such a role.

My characters are fictional, but…

Sure they are. I tell my brain that all the time. It doesn’t listen.

No real people are harmed by whatever I do to them.

Yup.

So why do I keep finding myself at this point, where I have to justify to myself what I am about to write them through?

Is it more that it exposes MY worldview?

There is some of that.

But I sat down with this feeling today and realized I get my worldview from the world, the one we all live in.

I’m not one of the experimental science fiction authors who create entire races of very different characters (Olivia Butler does a superb job of this).

I strive for such absolute realism in my writing, from ‘right behind the characters’ eyeballs,’ that you will feel this happened to you – until you close the book.

I want you to live another LIFE

I want you to think very hard about what you would do if faced with the kind of consequences that are determined by the behavior I’m espousing by showing you a character doing it.

And be glad, or maybe experience regret and longing, that they don’t actually happen – to YOU.

So this is my job.

And I go back to it with all my prejudices reinforced.

**********

8 thoughts on “Writer’s difficult decisions mirror human life

  1. Chris

    One thing that has had me thinking for a while is this: To which extent are our ideas of what constitutes good, well-developed and -presented characters (and fiction in general) influenced and perhaps dictated by sociocultural context?
    In plain terms, do we have a Western-world bias when it comes to narrative strategies, or are some things universal?
    When Aristotle says that there’s no point in a story of a good man enjoying good fortune, or of an utter villain being punished, to me that feels very universal. Hamartia, a tragic flaw, feels universal; both narratively and actually. But I wonder whether I could be wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Definitely a Western bias to my stories – read and written. I’ve seen others, not interested.

      But there are no utter villains. Unless they are mentally ill. There ARE people for who others don’t count at all – the former guy is an example – unless there’s something in it for them.

      Pitiful way to exist, always easy to offend, never at complete ease, bullying and attacking. They’re not even tragic, since they bring it on themselves. They are not missed.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      1. marianallen

        Isn’t bringing it on themselves what MAKES them tragic? My favorite Writing Precept is that the villain is the hero of their own story. It makes them so much more interesting to write. It’s why I prefer the terms protagonist and antagonist to the terms hero and villain.

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        Reply
        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I think it’s crucial for a reader to identify with SOMEONE in the story (not every writer does), so that does pick a hero for them.

          But I’ve also had people tell me how much they liked my ‘villain’ – who has her own complicated story. It did surprise me when someone said she was their favorite character – I wonder what resonance she hit. For myself, I strive to be fair to her, and admire the way she sticks to her goals.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. marianallen

          If the antagonist is written (or in performance, played) well, they’re so very, very juicy and rich. Fagin. Darth Vader. Javert. That’s the case with your “villain”; she’s such a complete person, and her motives and damages are so clear. Even when the reader is hoping she’ll fail, you wish she could get what she wants without hurting the characters you’re rooting for.

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        3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Ant the Red Queen could believe six impossible things before breakfast.

          Which is as many impossible things as I ask you to believe over a half million words in the finished product. Hidden among the fronds of the possible ones, and heavily disguised to look no different.

          Liked by 1 person

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