Whenever I do a book signing event, after explaining to curious readers that my novel Finding Ruby involves a kidnapping, forced identity change, several shootings, explosions, and a fire or two, I get confused looks. They ask, “How do you think up these things”? and eye me sideways; after all, a person who dreams up such diabolical stuff for her characters must be a creepy sort. Maybe they don’t think I look like a person who has this kind of mind – or perhaps they do.
I laugh and tell them, “I have a vivid imagination.” What can I say- it’s true: I’m a fiction writer of spy thrillers. The genre demands intrigue and suspense and many eventful mishaps. In order to accomplish that, I put my characters through hell.
In my previous blog post, “Don’t Fall in Love with your Characters,” I talk about how hard I find it to put my darlings in harm’s way. Of course I’m protective of them, especially my “good guy” characters. But I’ve learned that allowing my personal emotions to influence the shape of my story only throws up creative barriers. My editor says, “kill them.” You want drama? Then don’t let the reader get comfortable. It’s hard to do, but I’ve found that to be good advice. Being conflicted, I side track myself with a bunch of rather crazy rules I’ve invented in order to maintain a business attitude about writing. Mine are fictional characters and rules are just rules. Creating a protagonist is easy. He/she has a problem that needs to be overcome. The antagonist, well, he/she needs to be defeated.
But what to do with all those “supporting” characters? I consider them fair game. There are so many books with strong opinions as to what the right and wrong things to do with characters are. OK, some of the rules make sense, but for me some of those rules only restrict my creativity. That’s not a good thing because writing is all about inventiveness and originality. Why should I limit myself just because there is a rule that says I shouldn’t do this or that?
Instead, I try to write intelligently, using proper grammar, a follow-able structure, and a clean format. Writers can get discouraged if they feel they are not measuring up to the rules. So I take my own approach. I put my characters, all of them, in dangerous circumstances. Not that my way is radical; I just tell my story the way it comes out, straight from my imagination, dictated by that mysterious inner voice every writer has.
When the conversation with my reader goes on, I explain how in the novel, my female protagonist, Ruby, finds herself in unwanted action whereby a psychopathic killer relentlessly pursues her and her new family, the Drakers. “Oh, that sounds too scary. It would keep me awake at night,” they say. This gives me pause. While I consider Finding Ruby a complicated adventure in which my characters frequently encounter worst scenario hazards, I didn’t write it intending for it to be “scary.” I wonder if those same people ever tune into the evening news. Now that’s scary! Maybe that’s their point. They want to get away from the fearful events that plague society. With that in mind, I can see where they might love a book description that goes something like this:
Mary has the perfect life in her peaceful suburban Toronto neighbourhood. She has a successful career, and is going to marry the man of her dreams and live happily ever after. The end.
Such a story would never exist, but I understand the impetus to want this. Or maybe these readers are just superstitious and think that reading about awful events would conjure up disaster in their own lives.
However, if your reading tastes run along the lines of stories that don’t put you to sleep the minute you open your book, you might choose stories whose plots make your hair stand on end. I’m not sure how many people go into a bookstore looking for a book about Mary and her perfect life, but I personally wouldn’t, and I wouldn’t want to give that to my readers.
Therefore my rule stands: always put your characters in terrible danger. Finding Ruby is a story meant to entertain. Happily ever after might be a good ending for a fairy tale, but it’d be a pretty lousy ending for a mystery.