Maybe not all of you who read these writing updates are writers yourselves, but I’m willing to bet that you’re at least readers. You know that feeling when something tragic happens in a book (like a betrayal or a favorite character’s death) and you’re left feeling like the entire world has ended?
Yeah, authors feel like that too. Whilst writing the scene. It’s a vicious cycle, because while there’s nothing you can do about the characters in a book you’re reading, we as writers have no one to blame but ourselves. Now, I certainly don’t speak for all writers; I know plenty that feel absolutely no remorse when killing off characters, or just generally causing their MC as much misery as possible. But I get very connected to my characters, so when something bad happens to them, most of the time it’s a very traumatic situation for me.
So how do I cope? How do I just grit my teeth and ruthlessly murder and torture my imaginary people?
(okay, wow, that sounded very creepy…) And how can you do that as well? Well, here are a few tips:
1. Go over your outline. Often times I try to find some way that my characters won’t have to go through the tragedy. I scour my outline to find some other way, some hidden loop hole, something…..Pft, just kidding. While my hopes might be that I can get out of it, I really can’t. Going back to my outline helps remind me of why I have to do the thing that I’m dreading to put my characters through. I can see clearly “Oh, he has to die, so that she will have the motivation of revenge to overthrow the evil empire,” or “Man, I guess I really have to make this character betray the rest of the team, because otherwise why was he there in the first place?” It’s a good idea to go over your outline at any point at which you feel unsure, or you’re about to construct a new scene. Because you have an outline, right? Right?
2. Distance yourself from the characters ahead of time. This doesn’t help in the moment, but if you can remind yourself throughout the book that such-and-such thing is going to happen to such-and-such character, then it won’t feel quite as unexpected when you finally come down to writing the scene. For example, if you know that you’re going to have to kill off character X from the beginning (Because it’s in your outline, that you TOTALLY wrote), then you shouldn’t be surprised when you come to the scene when he has to be killed. You’ll at least know why your crying. Or if you’re like me, you’ll be a cold, unfeeling shell by the time it happens, and then you won’t start freaking out until the scene is over and you realize what a horrible human being you are.
3. Remind yourself that your characters are human too. Or fairies, or vampires, or aliens, or whatever. You know your story. And I’m assuming you’re a human being, who has a human life. (I mean, not to offend any aliens out there). Have you ever met anyone with a perfect life, nver faced any hardships? Yeah, me neither. So even if you’re writing a fictional story, it needs to emulate real life, at least on the personal empathy side, because that is what makes a reader connect to your story. Why would you want to read a book where the characters never have anything interesting happen to them? (not to say that good turn-0f-events can’t be interesting too, but most of the action in stories is produced by conflict and tension.)
4. Think about all the good that will result from this tragedy. Can you think of something tough that you went through and came out the other side a million times stronger as a result? Characters work that way too, and often times a death or huge tragedy will suck at first, but it opens a door for massive character development. One of my favorite examples of this is the Throne of Glass series. Leaving spoilers out, if you’ve read the books you know that theres a major death that almost destroys Celaena, the protagonist. It took her a long time to overcome her grief, and she faced a lot of bumps along the way, but when she did she came back exponentially stronger. She was finally able to forgive a lot of people, including herself, and she also learned to finally except who she was. Without this, she would have remained a very bitter, spoiled person and definitely wouldn’t have been prepared for all the hardships to come later in the series.
So those are a few tips I have for those of you who are writing (and believe me you will) tragic scenes. I’m totally not pulling from current events in my writing life right now…*sobs*
Writing tragedy is hard. (Tragic events that is, not the genre. Though I’m sure Hamlet was very hard to write.) We’ve created and rooted for our characters for so long, and now we must put them through the fire. But the good thing about it is that they can grow into better, stronger people. And most importantly, the reader might learn some pretty cool life lessons along the way.