By David E. Sharp
“I don’t like it,” my wife said after hearing about my latest story concept. I always appreciate her honesty. It’s what makes her such a great sounding board.
“What don’t you like about it?” I asked.
She told me exactly what was bothering her. This book is the third and possibly final installment in my Lost on a Page series. The second volume launches in May, and she is one of a handful of people who have read it before publication. She has a vested interest in these characters and their stories.
So, what bothered her? My protagonist begins all wrong. He is in the wrong place, with the wrong person, and doing all the wrong things.
But her objections led me to believe I am not wrong at all. Neither is she. The opening to my latest book put her in conflict with the status quo. What’s more, she had enough emotional investment with the protagonist that this conflict made her angry.
That’s an emotional response! Cue a soundbite of a cheering crowd.
Of course, I’m not going to leave him there in the place of all wrong. That is the purpose of the plot. But when your readers are unhappy that things are not as they should be, you have created a world and characters that readers care about. Once you have that in place, don’t pull your punches. Put those characters through the wringer!
Why is it so essential to pick on your fictional people?
Happy-ever-after is a destination, not a story. It is the carrot we dangle in front of our characters to propel them through the plot. You may have happy moments and false victories along the way, but those are only there so you can snatch them away. It’s not all cruelty, though.
Every difficulty is a step toward true victory, something that will satisfy readers and characters alike. Unless happy endings aren’t your style. In that case, maybe you really are a bully.
The point is once characters are comfortable, readers are satisfied. And once the readers are comfortable, they stop turning pages.
But you don’t have to take my word for it.
I worked in a bookstore when several infamous volumes of the A Song of Ice and Fire series came out. You may know these by their HBO adaptation, A Game of Thrones. I witnessed George R. R. Martin’s dedicated fanbase storming the building for their latest heartbreak. (If you don’t know, Martin is known for murdering major characters brutally and without much forewarning).
Readers would stop in front of the large display and pause. They would emit a long sigh for some, wondering which of their beloved characters Martin was going to kill off this time. Others would shake their fist at the ceiling. But every one of them took that book with them. They had to know!
Even if George R. R. Martin was a diabolical fiend, they had to be there with their fictional friends, reading along to let them know someone cared. I care!
It’s for their own good.
Of course, authors care about their characters. If they don’t, how can they expect readers to? Conflict isn’t really about cruelty. It is about the painful process of tearing away the small comforts that hold people down so they can seek after something better. We all have those tattered blankets of childhood, whatever form they take that we cling to.
Sometimes they are habits, biases, affections, addictions, or actual tattered blankets. Whatever they are, they hold us back from the life that could be. And they are not easy to cast aside.
The conflict we put our characters through exists to rip away the comforts of their status quo and demonstrate to them and our readers that something better exists. And that is what the story is all about.
Back to the issue at hand
So, will I proceed with my plot as planned? Absolutely! I have confirmation that readers will need to read on to ensure that I fix everything for the characters that I broke. My wife has only assured me I am on the right path. But I will proceed with caution. After all, she knows where I sleep.