Monday, August 1, 2011

How much can a character endure?

You've finally figured it out. You've killed your MC's parents, best friend and dog. Your MC has been thrown off a cliff, barely survived and has to limp 50 miles back to save his love interest from certain death. On the way he encounters wild animals and crazy people who are trying to kill him.

So ... why would we put him/her through all that?

We all know we need to raise the stakes in our MC's lives. We have to throw them into situations that nearly crush them to pieces. We want them to hurt. Emotionally and physically. We want to draw our readers in so far that they cannot put the book down. We want them to feel the emotion. Root for our MC to come out on top.

But how do we know what to throw at them? How do we know how much our MC can handle and when enough is enough?
One of my favorite t.v. shows was Alias. The MC Sydney Bristow was a double agent and was so freaking awesome. I loved seeing her in action, beating the crap out of bad guys. But aside from her kickboxing skills, she was such a real character. She lost so many people. She cried. She hurt. She went through losing her fiance, her best friend and her parents, to still fighting for what was right. I loved her. Even though she had so many obstacles to overcome, she kept going.

When I'm writing I tend to think about what I would do in a situation. Most of the time I'd cower in a corner or run away screaming, but then I think if my family were involved, I would stay and fight. I'd fight for them and I use that to get inside my characters heads. My MC's always have someone they care about. Someone they would die for.

Make sure your MC's have something to fight for. To keep living for. Don't just chuck them in a hole full of rattlesnakes for no reason. There has to be a purpose for everything they go through. To grow, to make them realize how much they have to lose.

How do you know how much is too much for your characters to go through? How do you put them in situations that seem hopeless and make them come out on top?

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17 comments:

E.R. King said...

I try to avoid the "everything happens to my characters for no reason, just bad luck." I think if there is a purpose behind the conflict, like the bad guy is responsible for it all, then you can put your character through as much as you'd like. There's gotta be a reason though; chance can't be to blame for everything.

Jen Daiker said...

I love putting my characters through trials. It's cool to see how they'll react. I know each time they'll pull through, and if they don't, well then it obviously wasn't the route I'd originally intended.

I like to make my characters relatable... the trials have to be somewhat relatable as well to make the reader stay.

linda said...

Hm... I know it's important to put characters through trials, but as a reader, I don't enjoy stories where only terrible/heartbreaking things happen to the MC, even if the MC can endure and fight them. There needs to be some hope and joy, too. Juliette Wade wrote a post about that exact topic today: http://talktoyouniverse.blogspot.com/2011/07/be-tender-be-terrible-with-your.html

Chantele Sedgwick said...

@E.R. King I agree. Too many random things happening to characters usually makes me roll my eyes. :)
@Jen Daiker It is fun to throw things at characters, right? I do think they need to be relate-able though. Like you said. You don't want the reader to think, "whatever, that would never happen." :)
@linda I'm not a huge fan of hearbreaking things either. I think if it fits the story, then great. But if a tragedy happens out of nowhere and doesn't go with the tone of the story, it throws me off. :)

Creepy Query Girl said...

I think it's important to show the character's weakness when necessary even if it reassures us to think they can face anything and come out on top or stay strong- it isn't realistic. One place I found this was really well done was in Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse novels. At one point the MC is tortured and she doesn't just bounce back. It takes her time and we're aware of it throughout the first third of the book and triumph when she finally finds her strength.

Monica Mansfield said...

I loved Alias!

Great post.

Cynthia Lee said...

I'm a fan of making main characters miserable but there has to be something redeeming along the way, even if it's just a small thing.

I call it the Buffy trajectory. :)

Jenny said...

Great post Chantele!! I hope your feeling better.

I find myself reading books and thinking, Oh my I could NOT do that to my MC. I'm trying to work toward a balance.

2 books I've read recently have done a great job at making the MC's family and friends, and not just the love interest, worth fighting for.

Jolene Perry said...

Can't be too much, but enough that EVERY scene is pulled by something important.

I'm in the middle of a project about three girls, and I had to come up with challenges for each of them - aside from the one they're in together.

It's HARD. And like you said, it needs to be big, but not TOO big...

Abby said...

So true Chantele. I think this is when outlining comes in handy. Its easier to visualize and get things right. Helps you to make sure there is a reason for all their struggles.

Mel Fowler said...

What a great post Chantele, I am really glad that I get to read helpful stuff like this. I never know what is 'too much' for my characters.

I think that I sometimes glaze things over and make it easier than it should be. Something that I need to work on. Maybe I watch too much Disney with my kids or something. :)

Michael Offutt said...

Oh the evil writers of the world putting their characters through such troubles. Alas...safety is so banal that it does not appeal to the masses.

Kaylee Baldwin said...

I was reading a Julia Quinn novel and she totally makes fun of this concept. She has a character who is an author--and this character writes books where by pg, 25, she's survived the plague, outran a wild boar, fell off a cliff, but caught a root last minute, and her whole family dies. It's hilarious because it is just conflict for the sake of conflict. I agree, motivation is huge.

LynNerd said...

I only saw Alias a few times, but you're right, it was a good show. Sometimes it's so hard to put our characters through tough scenes, especially when we're really connected to them, but if it's part of the story, we've got to do it. I have one scene that's caused an anxiety attack, it's so emotional, but it has to happen.

Chantele Sedgwick said...

@Creepy Query Girl I haven't read those, but I've heard so much about them. I may have to check them out! :)
@Monica Mansfield Thank you! :D
@Cynthia Lee Ha! Love it!
@Jenny I love it when the MC fights for their family. Love it. And I'm feeling better now. Thank you! :)
@Jolene Perry Agreed. Every scene has to be pulled by something to make the reader keep reading. It is hard, but we'll eventually get it, right? ;)
@Abby Ugh. Outlining!! :P I need to start doing that. lol
@Mel Fowler I LOVE Disney movies. I'm sure I glaze things over as well. I like my books to have happy endings. Always. :)
@Michael Offutt Ha ha! I actually like putting my characters through things. Just not a million things at the same time. ;)
@Kaylee Baldwin That is so funny! Conflict for the sake of conflict. I'll have to find that book and read it! It sounds hilarious! :)
@LynNerd I have several anxiety attack scenes in one of my books and it seriously hurts to write them! But you gotta do what ya gotta do. You know? :)

Angie Cothran said...

There is a point when it is too much and you risk loosing readers. I've shut books and turned off movies because all of the sudden the terrible stuff becomes predictable.

"Of course she is going to loose her leg, contract scabbies, get in a car wreck, find out her husband is cheating, and that her twins were switched at birth!" Give me a break. The stakes have to be realistic--this is why I HATE daytime soaps. Anything bad that can happen--does. Zero tension. And they wear the same clothes for days on end.

Jessie Humphries said...

Good point about keeping track what they are fighting for. But as far as too much? I dont know if there ever can be.