Wednesday, September 15, 2010

My Characters Are Not My Kids

I'd like to take a short break from the Facing Our Fears series. Blame it on my Muse. She's not exactly a linear thinker :-) Don't worry, though. We'll get back on track soon enough...

While driving home from work yesterday evening, I got a plot idea for a story I've been working on. A wonderful idea. An awful idea. A deliciously, wonderfully awful idea.

It's wonderful because it fits the story so well and it's true to my heroine and it adds so much nail-biting tension I can hardly stand it...and...and...well, it is exactly what I need. To a tee.
At the same time, it's awful because it requires me to do a really bad thing to my heroine. Bad enough to almost destroy her. Bad enough to cut her off from just about everyone around her. Before you ask, yeah, it is that screwed up, and no, it's not rape, torture or any other form of abuse. It's something a little more subtle, but with equally devastating results.

The funny thing is, as much as I love the idea, a large of me is railing against it because I know just how difficult it will make life for my character---for many of the characters in the story, in fact. And, even though this is a perfectly fictional being we're talking about here, some twisted maternal part of me wants to protect her, keep her safe. I want her to walk, talk and feel as alive as real, flesh-and-blood person, except I don't want her to feel pain. I don't want her to bleed.

Am I the only one who thinks that's a tad bit weird? Gosh, I hope not.

Fortunately, I thought of some wise words from one of my favorite writers of all time, the one-and-only Holly Lisle. I don't believe I've mentioned her on the blog before, but the woman has been an utter godsend for my writing. Her website has advice for just about every writing question you can think of, and 99.9% of it is FREE. Not to mention the fact that her Secret Texts trilogy features some of the most fantastic world-building I've ever come across...

But I digress. Anyway, in her "How to Create a Character" workshop, Ms. Lisle says the following:

You must feel empathy for the characters you create, both the heroes and the villains, but you can never feel sympathy. In other words, you have to understand why your characters do what they do, but you can't let that understanding tempt you to ease their suffering, or let them take the easy way out of situations, or experience sudden miracles that remove their obstacles.

And you know something? That's exactly my problem right now. I'm sympathizing with my heroine instead of empathizing with her. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. I've spent a ridiculous number of years with this character, more years than I'd care to admit. I suppose it's natural that I've become attached to her, that I think of her as a sort of adopted child.

Except that she's not. She's a character, not a kid, and no matter what hell I put her through, she won't break. Besides, if she never has to go through anything tough, no one will want to read her story.

What about you? Do you ever get too attached to your characters? What do you do when it happens?


  1. Sometimes when I balk at putting my characters through the ringer, I have to stop short and remind myself that whatever dastardly deed I am about to launch against them, it will make the book BETTER.

    I like the empathy vs. sympathy angle. Must remember that one...

  2. I definitely get too attached to my characters. I hate doing anything bad to them or putting them in scary or compromising situations. I love the distinction between sympathizing and empathizing with your characters--that's so useful! Good luck with your new plot twist!

  3. LOL! This is what I do: I start my stories on the worst day of my character's life. And then I keep making things worse until the end of the book.

    Sometimes, at the end of a writing day, I feel traumatized, and I have to sit down with myself and explain to myself that said trauma did not actually happen to me.

  4. Melissa: Very true. It's very difficult to have TOO MUCH conflict in a story. Most of us have the opposite problem. I guess when you look at it in that light, adding some trouble for your character doesn't seem so bad.

    Meredith: I'm glad you enjoyed the sympathy/empathy angle. Holly Lisle is really fabulous at explaining those kinds of concepts in a way writers can understand. Thanks for the well wishes, too!

    Natasha: Ooh, good idea! I bet you get some fantastic plot points that way. I'll have to try that in my WiP. Thanks for the tip.

    And yes, I feel somewhat scarred after writing difficult scenes as well. The process of writing is wonderfully cathartic, but it can be quite emotionally draining, too.

  5. I've had the same problem. Everytime I add a complication for my character, I feel a little guilty. Exactly like you said though, empathy and not sympathy. That is a great way to put it. :) Great post, and happy birthday tomorrow!

    Cool people are born in October.

  6. I'm right there with you. I've done things to my characters that I still feel guilty about. I take that as evidence that a) I did what needed to be done and b) I'm as crazy as an outhouse rat. When I first read your post, a quote came to mind from the film 'Gettysburg' that is somewhat applicable. Lee is speaking with Longstreet and says: "General, soldiering has one great trap: to be a good soldier you must love the army. To be a good commander, you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love."

  7. Jenn: Oh, I'm so glad I'm not alone on this! I was beginning to think I'd gone a little (more) nuts. Feeling much more normal now. And yup, all the cool people are totally born in October ;-)

    Jim: Hey there! Thanks so much for stopping by. It was good seeing you this past weekend. I always enjoy your insight and your wonderful brand of humor. You keep me laughing and thinking at the same time.

    Love the Gettysburg quote as well. Methinks that one will stick with me for awhile. Thanks again for the great comments!