Why You Need To Do The Tough Stuff

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Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

I was having a conversation with Noodge 2 the other night. She told me about a friend of hers, let’s call her Carolann, who has a bad habit of sucking face in the hallways at school. Carolann can’t seem to control herself when she’s with her boyfriend. Others aren’t pleased with her. I can’t same I blame them. I’m not a big fan of tongues, spit, and slurping sounds while I’m present. (Unless I’m the one doing it, with the Coffee King, in a very private place, and preferably in the dark.)

More importantly, no one is telling Carolann to knock it off. At least to knock it off in public. Do what you want behind closed doors. (Not that I’m condoning fifteen-year-olds make a habit of sucking face.) When I suggested someone take Carolann aside, and in a nice way say “Yo, keep your tongue in your mouth for crying out loud.” Noodge’s response was, “easier said than done.” Yes, true.

But nothing changes if you don’t make yourself uncomfortable once in a while. How can you expect to grow and learn about life if you always take the easy way out? You don’t want to be the person who watches life go by because you couldn’t stretch yourself out of your comfort zone. I’m not just talking about speaking your mind here.

Easier said than done sounds a little like a cop-out. Like there’s no point in really trying since whatever is easier said can’t be done without effort. “Well, since it’s easier to say I should quit smoking than actually doing it, I don’t really have to.”

 

Writing novels isn’t an easy thing to do, though there are plenty of people who think it is. They are wrong. Trust me. Those that sit down to write an entire novel and complete it will feel uncomfortable a lot. Writers can feel so badly while writing that suddenly cleaning the concrete of your sidewalk with toothpaste and an eyebrow pencil becomes appealing.

As writers, we are told to make our characters sweat. That’s what I tell my creative writing classes. The more uncomfortable your character is, the better. In fact, give your protagonist two choices neither of them with perfect outcomes and force her to choose. You bet your character is going to feel uncomfortable. In fact, the writer should feel the same way putting the words on the paper.

I’m working on the first drafts of book two in my Heritage River series, (book one, A Second Chance House, is in edits) and my heroine has a choice to make. She doesn’t like her choices and wishes she didn’t have to make one, but if she doesn’t hurry up and decide, fate will decide for her. I feel badly for her. I’d like her to have it all, and since I’m kind of in control of her world I’m going to attempt to give her what she really wants. I don’t know if I can, though. Neither choice has a good outcome.

Nothing happens in a story if the characters take an “easier said than done” approach. Sure, make-believe people aren’t the same as real life fifteen-year-olds trying to navigate through life. I understand why a teen would rather say nothing to the friend who’s tongue performs acrobatics during study hall. Who likes confrontation? Well, except me, maybe. But characters on the page, even teenage characters, shouldn’t get the same pass. Not if you want the reader to keep turning pages.

It’s interesting to me how people shy away from confrontation in real life and how authors shy away from confrontation for their characters. When I edit, I often find myself saying, don’t let them out of it so fast!

You can’t grow as a person if you don’t do the tough stuff. Someday you will have to say the words, “please stop.” You’re also going to have to say, “I’m the most qualified, the best choice.” You can’t grow if you don’t ever ask, “what could I have done better?” Even my character has to come to terms with the fact she was too afraid to tell the truth. Speaking up is always easier said than done. But it’s well worth it.

 

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3 thoughts on “Why You Need To Do The Tough Stuff

  1. Great post, Stacey. What I also find interesting is that when I give my characters tough choices, I’m also giving myself tough choices. Asking the question, what would I do in this situation? And to be honest, sometimes the answer isn’t comfortable either – particularly around risk, putting myself on the line, the conditions under which I would be violent (it’s hard to even write that thought). My characters have taught me to take a stand when I see others being harmed, and I’ve taken heat for it. I think authors have to make our characters uncomfortable, but we also have to go inside them and feel the discomfort in order to make them authentic humans. A provocative post!

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words, Diana. Someone gave you a bad time for a character who stands up for someone else or for you standing up for another? That sounds like compassion to me. We do have to feel our characters’ discomfort so as authors, we can express it.

      I often ask myself how would I handle a particular situation when I’m trying find answers for my characters, but honestly, how I would handle something might not be the way my character would. I then rephrase the question to, “how would someone who suffers from self-doubt handle this?” Or, “how would someone who thinks the world revolves around them handle this?” A person who struggles for money will handle a situation differently than a person who has money. A person who grew up in a violent home will handle a situation differently than one who didn’t. And also important, is what are the characters’ goals? Do they want to change their violent ways? Or do they want to learn to speak their mind? Which is why it’s so important to know as much as we can about our characters before we start writing. What motivates them? Why do they do what they do?

      I could go on forever with my writing lesson, but I will end here for now. Thanks for stopping by and participating in the discussion!

  2. Great post, Stacey. Yeah — discomfort catalyzes growth. A character in a story is presented with a series of opportunities to push through the psychic wound/limitation that makes him most emotionally uncomfortable (and, therefore, vulnerable), and he retreats and retreats and retreats until that becomes so tiresome and monotonous and, ultimately, counterproductive, that he finally learns to grow past it.

    In his screenwriting instructional Story, Robert McKee talks about how a choice between good and evil or right and wrong isn’t a choice at all. True choice, he says, is dilemma: a decision that must be made between irreconcilable goods or the lesser of two evils. Fledgling writers have a habit of making their characters — particularly their protagonists — too wholesome, too pure of heart; they haven’t been given sufficient room to grow and change through the course of the story.

    And then, like an overprotective parent, these writers throw “softball” challenges at their heroes, too afraid to make them confront their darkest nightmares. The irony, of course, is that audiences root for characters who’ve been put through the ringer, and who are struggling to be better people despite themselves. All these years later, it’s still supremely satisfying when Han Solo shows up at the end of the original Star Wars to lend a critical hand; we’d spent the entire movie pulling for him to find the fortitude to become his best self. Same with 3:10 to Yuma: When Christian Bale decides to run Russell Crowe through the gauntlet to the train station at the film’s climax, he at long last earns everyone’s respect — especially his own. (Granted, it comes at the ultimate price, but…)

    I think any writer who’s struggled, either personally or professionally or both, is inclined to reflect that in their work, which is why young writers, who are often the most inexperienced at both their craft and in life in general, aren’t sufficiently punitive with respect to their protagonists. I say, put ’em through hell! Life didn’t make it easy on you, so don’t make it easy on them! They’ll thank you for it.

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