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Robert's Rules of Writing #17: Make 'Em Worry

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Masello's seventeenth rule is another rather simple one. The idea behind "Make 'Em Worry" is that stories need conflict and obstacles to be interesting. There's no point in writing a story in which your main character wants something and then in short order gets it. What makes a story work is that your characters want something and have to fight for it.

But as writers, we sometimes have a problem with this rule for one very simple reason. We like our characters too much. If we didn't like them, we wouldn't want to write about them. And because we like them so much, it can hurt us to put them through their paces. But we have to do so, or else there's no story. Or at least no story worth reading.

I remember the difficulty I had with this when I wrote my first published story, "TeleAbsence" (Analog, July 1995; reprinted in Wondrous Beginnings edited by shsilver). For those of you who haven't read it, the story is about a poor boy named Tony Louis, who desires a good education and sneaks into a virtual reality school to get it. The first draft was half the length of the final story, because I introduced the problem he had and let it get solved too quickly. In the second draft, it took him longer to solve the problem, but the solution was a little too perfect. Once again, I have to thank Stanley Schmidt, editor of Analog, for making me rework the story again and again until I finally got it right. In its final version, the obstacles are there and Tony has a lot more difficulty overcoming them than he did in the first draft.

We should emulate writers like David Gerrold, who discusses in his own book on writing how he sometimes does an exercise where he writes an interview between himself and his main character. He once "interviewed" Jim McCarthy, the protagonist of his "The War Against the Chtorr" series. McCarthy (and the whole human race) goes through an ongoing devastating invasion during that series, an invasion that begins with the death of 80% of the human race. Gerrold says that when he introduced himself to McCarthy as the author of the series, McCarthy came at him with a knife and he barely managed to escape with his life. That's how our characters ought to react if they ever meet us; we should make our characters suffer, so their victories at the end are that much sweeter.

Comments

Interesting. The reason I don't like the Chtorr books, and gave up on them somewhere in mid-series (something I very seldom do unless I'm *really* bored) is that they just *kept* getting worse and worse with not only no solutions, but no respite. Unrelieved suffering over really extended periods of time gets as boring as unrelieved victory over really extended periods of time, IMO, and a lot more depressing. Sure you need conflict, but you need to give your reader some glimpse of a possible reprieve or else they just wonder why you are putting them through this.

One of the best-constucted movies I've ever seen was a little unknown Richad Dreyfus film called Let it Ride. It managed to produce two hours of thrilling suspense without *anything* actually bad happening to its protagonist at all. Not once. They were always threatening to, and he always had to keep scrambling and juggling and managing to avoid catastrophe by the skin of his teeth... and he always did. It was great. I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see if the house of cards would, or would not, finally fall.
It's not necessary for something bad to happen to your main character; but there do have to be obstacles for the character to overcome. Otherwise, the story boils down to, "Protagonist wanted something. Protagonist got it. The end."

I agree that the Chtorr books are certainly unrelenting, and can definitely be depressing as well. But there are some good moments for Jim, like when he gets involved with Lizzy (if I recall her name correctly). But yeah, the type of story he chose to tell in that series is one that sometimes feels like a dark tunnel with no light at the end.
Sure there have to be obstacles. But the obstacles can be, if it's done well, "Protagonist has something, stakes it, and has to struggle to make the stake pay off instead of end in disaster."

I guess part of my problem with the Chtorr books is that I honestly didn't notice Jim much. I noticed the world. There may have been good moments for the individual protagonist but not fo the planet. I wanted the Earth to win a few skirmishes along the way, even if they were losing the war.

Interview

I really like this idea...and I don't have to speak Latin or ancient Briton to talk to the folks in the new book. :)

Though I may want to be careful about that whole attacking thing, as I might look a little bit like a (lazy) Saxon . . .
...should I worry about the fact that I never have trouble being cruel to my characters? Especially the ones I like?
Be afraid. Be very afraid. :-)
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