Characters Need to Feel the Burn

…whether by real fire, a horrible boss who’s always on his case, or a gallon of coffee in his lap.

One of the lessons I’ve been learning and applying recently in fiction writing is that characters (especially main characters) should suffer in some way, throughout the story. They cannot only have fun as the tale goes through its motions, and they cannot be given everything they want, certainly not at the moment they want it — where’s the drama in ordering a cup of coffee and getting it without incident?

And they can’t always shrug it off when they aren’t getting their way. If nothing is important to them, why would the reader think it important? Protagonists need to be hit where it hurts, because then the reader is more invested in their story. Pain breeds empathy, and the more your reader can connect with your character, the better.

To demonstrate, I will link to a hysterically funny clip from the Robot Chicken Star Wars parody, about Emperor Palpatine’s visit to the second Death Star. All copyrights and such belong to Adult Swim, Robot Chicken, Cartoon Network, etc. Go check it out.

Are you back? All right. That should start to give you a general idea of what happens to characters worth reading about: throughout the story, things keep happening that get in their way. Whether it’s from external conflict or their inner flaws and fears, characters’ journeys should not be easy.

Keep the pressure on your character by having new tortures thrown at them, or else one half of the novel will rivet your eyes to the page, and the other half will drag you, bored, through cold and dull mud. Readers want to read about people triumphing over adversity, not going for a pleasant stroll in the countryside without drama or danger.

Of course, there are many ways to make someone suffer, and different people should encounter adversity in various ways. Depending on the effect and the kind of story you’re telling, your character doesn’t need to be in constant pain or terror. It seems less than honest when the character (and reader) gets no chance at all to breathe and gather their thoughts. It varies, and you might have to trust your instinct a little. Tristan Thorn got to relax, smile, and take in the scenery quite a bit in Stardust, and Buttercup and Westley had many tender moments together in The Princess Bride, with episodes of adventure and peril in between. On the other hand, Arya Stark hardly ever catches a breather from trauma and tragedy in Game of Thrones, and Kvothe in Name of the Wind similarly has a devil of a time navigating a city or a magical academy on his own initiative.

Even if they win in the end, your beloved characters should get a rough ride. Now for the real challenge: to try applying that in my own work….

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The Reason I Love Speculative Fiction

I do not mean to say other genres suck or are inferior. I mean only to celebrate what I love in my own field, shameless optimist that I am.

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Alternate History. Together, these genres form the pillars of what is called speculative fiction. There can be lots of blending and subgenres that don’t quite belong to any one group (just look at steampunk and dystopia), but together they give an image of worlds that, as far as we know, don’t exist. Yet that’s not all they do. They can accommodate any other theme or motif, perform any other task, that characterizes fiction of other stripes.

Speculative fiction is a field of storytelling that specializes in “What if?” and “Why not?” It probes, challenges, questions, and explores in ways that no other kind of fiction is capable of. Yet it can take whatever has been produced by other sorts of fiction and give it more flavor, more chances for originality and finding what has been overlooked. Science fiction can probe as deeply into human nature as any literary novel you can think of. Alternate history can be as pulse-pounding as any spy thriller, or as romantic as a bodice-ripper from the checkout line. A fantasy can be a murder mystery, or even a slice-of-life tale (though it may be a slice of life from a magic student or an apprentice dragon-breeder).

Admittedly, there is a reputation which says speculative novels are not as introspective or deep or profound as “literary” novels. There are indeed thousands of shallow, hackneyed tales in all three genres, with little thought behind them.

However, one-dimensional stories do not remove the capacity for profundity or depth from any genre. Though fantasy may have its Twilights and Eragons, it also has its Name of the Wind and Song of Ice and Fire. Science fiction may allow The Fifth Element or Transformers into its ranks, but it boasts of  Star Trek, Fahrenheit 451,  and Dune. A million terrible novels could not extinguish even one book that doesn’t just ask “What if?” but also provides the best answer it possibly can.

I think bad fiction is usually bad because of untapped potential. The writer did not squeeze hard enough, or didn’t look in enough shadowy corners, to see what could nourish their characters, story progression, pacing, or anything else writers need to consider about their work. But when they do, they should be recognized for their incredible achievement.

In summary, this is why I love to read and write speculative fiction: It can always find a new place to go, and there’s nothing other fiction does that it cannot do.