How to Hurt the Ones You Love
Within the next two months, I'll be writing an article, "How to Hurt the Ones You Love," for an upcoming edition of the Romance Writer's Report, the trade publication of the Romance Writers of America. I chose the topic for this article based on the number of women -- nice women -- who tell me that one of their biggest challenges is heaping misery on the characters they've come to know and love. And not just misery, but the toughest challenges of that fictional person's life.
This has never been a problem for me. Maybe because, all rumors to the contrary, I'm not really that nice of a person. More probably because I find stories without conflict boring as hell, or I have this deeply-buried need to play the evil goddess. (See Kali, Indian goddess of destruction, above.) But unlike Kali, I don't get drunk on the blood of my victims (although I've been known to fantasize about such when stuck in gridlock traffic). I suffer along with my characters, even as I find their Achilles tendon and draw back my bowstring to take my best shot at it. (Let's hope there's not some kind of law against mixing mythologies in blog posts.)
If you're really going to show a character's growth, to shake this person down to the bedrock of her convictions, she is going to have to be severely challenged. There is going to have to be pain. Otherwise, why would she change a way of thinking that's been working for her (however poorly)? How would she get to a place where she could move beyond the flaw crippling her and find the strength to overcome challenges that would destroy the lesser version of herself? How can she deserve that happy ending and leave the readers cheering when she reaches it?
Do you ever find yourself thinking, "No, I can't do that to my characters. Anything else - but not that"? There may be a few times when you shouldn't. (I draw the line at whacking little kids and stomping puppies. There's some pain that's too painful for me to read about, let alone write.) A lot of times, however, that one "unthinkable" challenge may be the one the hero has to face, the one that will break down the character and then allow him to re-form a more worthy incarnation.
I'm looking for feedback for this article. Do you struggle with the temptation to wimp out when it comes to conflict? Do you have any great techniques for overcoming this aversion? And (keeping to my Indian theme), are there any sacred cows -- places you won't go in which to heap abuse on those poor characters? If your comment is chosen for inclusion in the article (I'll be limited by space and possible repetition), I'll be sure to (with your permission) mention your name and (if you're published, though you don't have to be) most recent book.
Thanks in advance for your help!