Being mean isn’t something I’m naturally good at. I try to be a good person. Try to be thoughtful of others and unselfish. In my writing pursuits I expected this would always serve me well, but not so. It turns out that being mean is a core requirement of writing. Why? Because if you’re always nice to your characters, nothing interesting will ever happen.
If J.K.Rowling was nice to Harry Potter, Voldemort would never have been born, Harry’s parents would still be alive and Malfoy would have been a delightful young chap. If J.K was kind, when Harry was invited to a school of Wizardry it would have been one big, joyous adventure with no danger or teen angst or Trolls/Werewolves/Deatheaters/’insert scary thing here’. If J.K was a generous soul, Harry would have had a very pleasant time at school, graduated and lived Happily Ever After. Sound boring to you? I’m putting myself to sleep just contemplating it.
As writers, we need to drag our characters through hell and back before the story is through. We need to create tension, drama, action, tough choices – more so than tends to exist in real life. I think this is why I enjoy fantasy so much, as there is such potential to raise the stakes beyond anything we experience in our own world. But being mean is harder than it sounds. I get incredibly attached to my characters – even protective of them – so without realising it I often let them avoid the tough stuff.
I’ve been using the ‘three act structure’ to outline the urban fantasy I’m currently developing (something Robert McKee discusses in Story and Alexandra Sokoloff studies over on her blog). I had a number of scenes I knew would feature in the book, and had written them onto story cards. I was then working out how they would work across the three acts – where they would fit, what would work as each act’s turning point and how each event would interact with the others. In doing this I realised parts of the story were severely lacking. Know why? Because I was being too kind to my characters. I had to up the stakes, make their choices harder, create greater consequences. Would this character really adjust so well to this turning point? No! They’d rail against it and make things harder for my protagonist. Would this piece of information be so easy to track down? No! My protagonist should have to prove himself before he can discover that pearler.
With this done, my story has filled out significantly, and as you can see my storyboard is nearly complete. Although I’m not sure how I’ll sleep tonight. I’ve done enough mean things to these characters to earn a lifetime of damnation…