Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Choose Your Torture

By Mandy Brown Houk

There’s a trap that many writers fall into when creating their characters. Or maybe it’s just me, in which case you don’t need to read this article.

The trap I find myself in, especially at the beginning of the novel-creating process, is the tenderness I feel toward my characters. I love them. I find them funny, precious, noble, dear. They’re flawed, sure. But only in lovable ways. In ways that make them that much more endearing. I want to stand back and smile at them,  enjoy them, laugh at the funny little things they do.

Only then, suddenly, I find that they’re not doing very much anymore. They’re merely sitting there, looking darling. Smiling sweetly. Maybe even napping.

Why is this so? Simple (and you probably already figured it out): I’ve loved them so much, I’ve protected them from all harm, all danger, all the truly serious complexities of life. Sounds like one heck of a story, doesn’t it?

A wise blue fish once said, “If nothing ever happens to him, nothing will ever happen to him.” Not only would that make for a snooze-inducing story, which is a terribly unkind thing to do to a reader; it also leaves the character in exactly the same place that he started.

In the interest of making my point clear, I will hereby embarrass myself by sharing two of my most spectacular failures in this area.

I was a top-ten finalist in a short story contest in 2004, and I was thrilled. Bret Lott, a favorite author of mine, was one of the top tier judges. When I didn’t win, a writer friend of mine convinced me to contact Mr. Lott and ask for feedback. Worth a shot, right? Mr. Lott very kindly replied, prefacing his comments with, “I hope this isn’t harsh.”


He went on to say that, while my writing was good “at the sentence level,” what I’d created was “a bathtub story.” He was borrowing a phrase from Jerome Stern, meaning that all my character did in the story was—well—nothing. She wasn’t doing. She was thinking. Ruminating. Feeling. Reflecting, regretting, hoping, planning. That’s all. And it wasn’t enough. The only thing the reader gets out of a story like that is a yawn. The only thing the character gets is pruny fingers.

A couple of years later, I figured I’d learned something from Mr. Lott. I’d taken that pruny-fingered character and shoved her out the bathroom door. I had her face a long-lost sister, returning home after thirty years. And I made that into a book. Yes, an entire book. No, nothing else really happened. Just the sister. A few arguments. Tears. I believe they left the kitchen a couple of times. Oh, wait—they went out to the garage once, too. (I’m not kidding. I wish I were.)

One of the (many) agents that rejected the book sent me her first-reader’s notes when I requested feedback. The concluding sentence from those notes made the point succintly: “There’s no reason for this story to exist.”

Now, I had been pretty pleased with my writing, “at the sentence level,” anyway. I was pleased with the characters; they were alive in my head, and I knew them, and they were distinct from one another and had all sorts of opinions and emotions and quirks and flaws. In various contests, my writing was generally received well. My characters, I was told, were likable and engaging. It was my stories that sucked (hard to get published with stories that suck). I was so in love with my characters, I refused to torture them; I chose, by default, to torture my readers instead.

Remember that story arc from your English teacher’s chalkboard? If your character never faces anything difficult or risky or terrifying, he’s never going to climb off the first flat chalk line, let alone make it over the peak and down the other side.

Throw something huge and awful at your character and see what he does. How does he react to the pain? What choice does he make to avoid it, or to protect those around him from feeling it, too? What action does he take to get revenge, or make amends, or find a way to forgive? Does the tragedy you’ve created break him? Or only almost? Does it lead him toward something even worse, that adds a whole other layer to your story?

I conquered my over-protective, reader-torturing ways at a Donald Maass workshop a few years ago. He told us to write the scene we were avoiding, to do the thing we dreaded. I did. And it was gut-wrenching and awful, and when I walked past my friend at the door, she said, “Are you okay?” I burst into tears that didn’t stop until I’d had time alone to remind myself that my character was a figment of my imagination, and imaginary figments don’t bleed or drown or cry. Not really.

And you know what? That very scene is the first one my agent brought up when we met for coffee last month. She put her hand over her heart and said, “Oh—I was so worried! That nearly killed me!”

Gleeful torturer that I am, I grinned.

About the Writer:  Mandy Brown Houk is a freelance writer and editor, and she teaches at a small private high school in Old Colorado City. She's written for several magazines and anthologies, and has completed two novels--only one of which is worthy of the light of day. Mandy's work is represented by Sally LaVenture at Warner Literary Group. Her web site

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