20 February 2018

Make Them Suffer--If You Can

by Barb Goffman

Authors in the mystery community are generally known for being nice folks. Helpful, welcoming, even pleasant. But when it comes to their work, successful writers are mean. They have to be.

An author who likes her characters too much might be inclined to make things easy for them. The sleuth quickly finds the killer. She's never in any real danger. In fact, there's no murder at all in the story or book. Just an attempted murder, but the sleuth's best friend pulls through just fine.

These scenarios may be all well and good in Happily Ever After Land. But in Crime Land, they result in a book without tension that's probably going to be way too short. That's why editors often tell mystery authors to make their characters suffer.

Yet that can be easier said than done. If you're basing a character on someone you don't like, then you might have a grand time writing every punch, broken bone, and funeral. But not every character can be based on an enemy. And sometimes characters seem to plead from the page, "Don't do that to me."

It's happened to me. I started writing a certain story a few weeks ago. I had a great first page, and then I got stuck. No matter how I tried to write the next several sentences, they didn't work right. I walked away from the computer. Sometimes I find a break can help a writing logjam. But not this time. In the end, I found I simply couldn't write the story I'd planned because, you see, that plan had included the death of a cat. And I just couldn't do it.
Don't do it!

The publication I was aiming the story for would have been fine with a story that included a dead animal. But I wasn't fine with it. And I knew my regular readers wouldn't like it either. Sure animals die in real life, and sometimes they die in fiction too. But those deaths should be key to the story. The Yearling wouldn't work if the deer didn't die. And Old Yeller needed the dog to die too.

I'm going to refer back to these very points if and when another story I've written involving animal jeopardy gets published. Sometimes that jeopardy is necessary for the story. And that's the key question: is it necessary? In the story I was writing about the cat it wasn't, and I knew it in my gut, even if I didn't know it in my head at first. That's why I couldn't bring myself to write the story as planned. Instead, with the help of a friend, I found another way to make the story work, one without any harm to animals.

It's not the first time something like that has happened to me. About six years ago I wrote a story called "Suffer the Little Children" (published in my collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even). This is the first story of mine involving a female sheriff name Ellen Wescott. She's smart and honest and way different than I'd planned. Originally she was supposed to be a corrupt man. But as I was thinking through the plot during my planning stage, I heard that male sheriff say in my head, "Don't make me do that. I don't want to do that." Spooky, right?

Sometimes characters
just have to be nice

While part of me immediately responded, "too bad,"--he had to suffer--another part of me knew that when characters talk back like that, it's because my subconscious knows what I'm planning isn't going to work. Either it won't work for the readers, as with the cat I couldn't kill. Or it won't work for the plot, as was the case with this sheriff story. So my corrupt male sheriff became an honorable female sheriff, and large parts of the plot changed. My female sheriff faced obstacles, but she was a good person. That was a compromise my gut could live with.

Readers, I'd love to hear about stories and books you've enjoyed that involved a plot event you didn't love, yet you accepted it because you knew it was important to the story. And writers, I'd love to hear about times you couldn't bring yourself to write something. What was it? And why?


15 comments:

Tonette Joyce said...

As for your first question:Game of Thrones, need I say more.
As for characters not cooperating, well,yes, all the time, especially in the one navel I have been working on. I tried to have one female of of two young couples be a floozy who was out to corrupt a young man bu there was no way they would cooperate; I had to put them down to background characters. I wanted more problems for one of the two male friends who were traveling with them, but have had to pull back.On the other hand, the main characters, a married couple, have had more problems than I ever imagined them having.They had a fight that I never saw coming, another that was barely avoided, and more stress between them than that marriage was supposed to have.
Truman Capote said:"“You can't blame a writer for what the characters say.” He's right

janice law said...

I think you are absolutely right that danger and misery are integral to the genre, at the same time, I still haven't forgiven Henning Mankell for saddling Kurt Wallander with dementia.

Robert Lopresti said...

Very good piece. I am working on a story right now called "Worse Than Death," which involves the kidnapping of a child. (I have written three stories on that subject and a friend says he won't let me near his kids. I think he's joking.) Physical harm is threatened but doesn't occur in the story.

Twice I have had characters (both females... hmmm) inform me that they wouldn't do what I was about to describe them doing. Both times they had better ideas.

But as for the general principle, yup, make 'em struggle.

Steve Liskow said...

Absolutely, make them work for the victory. Otherwise, they don't deserve it.
When I was still trying to sell what became the Woody Guthrie series, I had a story set in Detroit that involved a missing cat, which, of course, led to bigger and darker things. But I could never make it work with the rest of the book.

Eventually, I changed the setting from Detroit to CT and with other major changes (including eliminating the cat), it became Cherry Bomb.

I've had a couple of stories involving children where all the ugliness was implied and off-stage, too.

Adding conflict and hardship is still one of the things I have to work on most. It's still an issue in my current WIP, in fact.

Mary Sutton said...

I had that problem with a dog. I tried to simply put him in jeopardy, but my critique group rightly pointed out that the villian would kill the dog without a second thought. But I didn't want to kill the dog.

So I sent him to the vet overnight. :)

Mary/Liz

Paul D. Marks said...

Good stuff, Barb. And I killed a dog off in something and you can believe I heard about it from a lot of people.

Art Taylor said...

I'm teaching a true crime course right now, and we talked in class the other day about how a crime tears the fabric of a community, opening a hole and revealing what's inside. The same is true of characters, clearly--the more trouble you give them, the more you see what really makes them tick.

Eve Fisher said...

Yeah, you have to put them through hell even when you don't want to. But what I find interesting is that more people seem to have a fit if a pet is killed than if a person is... Or is that just in America?

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks, everyone, for stopping by.

Tonette, I might be the only person who's never seen Game of Thrones. So yes, you need to say more.

Janice, you remind me of one of the Chet and Bernie books, where Bernie is scared for a while that Chet might be sick. My worry was as real as if Chet were my own dog, and so was my relief when the veterinarian said he was okay.

Rob and Steve, I've had a number of stories with child jep. It's a struggle for the author and reader.

Mary, I love love love that you sent the dog to the vet overnight.

Paul, oh I believe it. My unpublished dog jep story is close to my heart, and I hope it gets published--but I'm also a little afraid of the reaction.

Art, yes, so true. You never know what someone will do until his back is up against the wall.

Eve, I don't know if it's an American thing. I kind of doubt it. Animals and children both rely on adult humans to keep them safe. They give unconditional love and trust. So when that's violated, it can be heartbreaking. Sigh.



Michael Bracken said...

Does worrying about what our "regular readers" might think prevent us from writing certain stories, or cause us to play it safe with the stories we do write?

I try to push everyone else out of my head when I write and let the story go where it goes, dead cat and all. Sometimes I find myself toning things back before the final draft to make a story more marketable, and sometimes I leave the story as is, even knowing it will likely never be published. But I try to keep those voices at bay during the writing.

Melodie Campbell said...

I'm always being told by readers, "But you're so MEAN to Rowena!" (From the Rowena Through the Wall series.) "Why can't you let her stay with her lover Thane so she can be happy?"
And once again, I explain that if I let her be safe and happy, there would be no more books in the series!
Yes, I pull back. The one time I didn't pull back - and that's in the third Rowena book - I've regretted it. I went too far, and even I'm uncomfortable reading that scene. Lesson learned. (Although oddly enough, Game of Thrones has made that scene more acceptable for readers now. Whoda thought.)

O'Neil De Noux said...

"Make them laugh. Make them cry. Make them wait." Charles Dickens

Barb Goffman said...

Thanks for commenting, Michael. I tried to keep the voices at bay while I was planning the cat story, but the voices intruded while I was writing. I may, at heart, be a little darker than what I often write, but not much more, so if something about what I have planned for a story isn't sitting right with me to the point that I can't get myself to write it, I take that hint from my subconscious. And I don't mind keeping my readers in mind when I write. Without readers, where would I be? (That's not to say that if I really wanted to go in a different direction, I'd stop myself. But to me there's nothing wrong with keeping readers in mind.)

Hi, Mel. Yeah, I get all that. But as a reader, I understand the frustration. Why can't Always In Drama Couple face a problem together, I've wondered multiple times in the past, instead of their coupledom always being the point of drama? I remember on the TV show Knots Landing back in the '80s, I waited season after season after season for Gary and Val to get back together. After four or five seasons of the writers screwing with me, I stopped watching the show out of frustration. I understand the writers got the couple back together a season or two after that, but I wonder how many viewers they lost by making people wait too long.

Leigh Lundin said...

Your article didn't travel in the direction I thought it would. I see your point, Barb. While the logical part of me would demand whatever necessary for the story, it's difficult to conceive of tales where I would harm an alligator… I mean cat or dog or a cockatoo named Valentine.

I'm suddenly flashing on Clarise hearing the screaming of the lambs. Sure, I was raised on a farm where we raised stock, but there was a code about not making animals suffer. If a hired hand was cruel, he wouldn't be brought in again. It was both easier and harder to live with in old days where animals had names instead of numbers. Modern factory farms are crueler in robotic ways than we can imagine.

Love O'Neil's Dickens quotation.

As for your question, I'd like to answer regarding a be-cruel-to-your-characters plot that didn't work for me, Shout at the Devil by that great thriller writer, Wilbur Smith. The first half of the book is a joyous romp, British Sebastian and American Flynn happily tweaking the noses of the the local German East Africa commander. Fun and games, Dennis the Menace x 2. Without warning, the Germans brutalize Sebastian's wife (Flynn's daughter) and viciously kill her daughter, The romp abruptly becomes a revenge story (and movie).

I hated the genre whiplash, I hated what happened to the wife and daughter, and I never forgave the rest of the book (and film). That's a case of literary cruelty that didn't work for me.

Anonymous said...

I prefer to avoid very graphic details and gratuitous violence, but agree there has to be conflict. (Storytellers know that harm to animals is to be avoided). I cried when reading A DAY NO PIGS WOULD DIE with my students, who laughed at me but then understood, and reading a book a student loaned me when I was a very new teacher, WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS (Googled "book two hunting dogs" and it worked).
I just pulled up "Suffer the Little Children" on my iPad (have been reading the stories one at a time, rationing them) -- so good I had to finish it and then come back to this excellent blog post. Tastefully done, and very suspenseful.