Monday, October 3, 2011

Writing the Hard Stuff

Over the course of a novel, your main character is going to face some tough situations (unless you're writing the world's most boring book).  And that means that you yourself are going to have to live that situation through your character.  This, for me, is one of the hardest things about writing.

All this chatter lately about how dark YA is, and how so many stories now involve bullying/rape/cutting/abuse/violence/suicide/sadness/etc, leaves out one very important factor.  The toll it takes on a writer to actually write those things.

Years ago, when I was writing my first novel, I had to write a graphic rape scene that happened to one of the main characters.  It took several weeks to craft the scene.  During that time there was a constant sadness pressing on me, a weight I couldn't shake off.  And when I was actually sitting at the computer writing, I was often in tears.

A lot of people might wonder why I chose to write that.  After all, I'm the author; I'm in control.  That character didn't have to get raped, did she?

Well, yes.  She did.

I think a lot of non-writers believe that we choose what we want to write.  And why would we ever want to write a story about cutting or rape or suicide?  But the truth is, we don't choose.  Very often, characters come to us and demand to have their story told, and we are just the vessel.

It can actually get a little annoying.  I can't tell you how many times I tried to send that above-mentioned character down Path A, only to have her stomp down Path B with me trailing helplessly behind.

Characters come from our own imagination, but once we set them to paper and whisper breath into them, they take on a life of their own.  Maybe we did set out to write a story about a girl who cuts herself, but once she starts talking to us, we realize she has a deep, dark story of abuse that needs to be told, too.  

We all love our characters; we want them to be happy.  But they're not living their lives frolicking in a bed of daisies, and it would be a disservice to them to try to put them there.  As painful as it was to write about my beloved character getting raped, I knew I had to honor her story. 

I'm talking about this now because I just had to write a death scene.  It's not a major character, but it's someone important to my heroine, and she's the only one present at the death.  To put her through that, to make her witness that, is heartbreaking.

But I know that this is an important part of her journey, and taking the easy road isn't an option.  The easy road paves the way for bad storytelling...and for characters with less depth.  And that is more of a disservice to our characters than any tragedy.


  1. Terrific post! Sums up the struggles writers have with their characters perfectly!

  2. Great post. We have all been there, or we should have been. You are quite right, they do want their stories told, their way. Keep up the great work.

  3. Great post! Since I write mostly children's picture books, I don't have to go to the dark places very often, but I am doing so more in my other writing. I guess that's what they mean when they say "bleed" onto the page...

  4. Oh so true! Just finished my first novel, and I often found myself thinking 'why am I writing such graphic scenes?' But, yes, characters do take on their own life and we are but telling their tales. Thank you for putting it so eloquently in your post. Excellent job!