Friday, October 23, 2015

Guide to Destroying Your Characters Without Necessarily Killing Them'

When it comes to damaging our heroes and heroines, we tend to go with physical injury. And after talking about all those weapons last week, it makes sense that being shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, shot with bits of sparkly bits of molten plasma, or whatever, would be the first thing we think of. But there are so many delicious options available. I'd like to offer up the start of a list for your consideration. A sort of 'Guide to Destroying Your Characters Without Necessarily Killing Them'

Protagonists have goals. Any goal worth pursuing requires that choices be made, which leads us to:
  1. Choices have consequences, up to and including injury and death.
  2. The bigger the goal, the bigger the consequences of a protagonist's choices must be.
  3. Physical injuries heal, but they do so at a knowable rate. Don't let your reader Google that for you.
  4. Physical injuries have possible lasting impact - closed head injuries are some of the most mysterious and unpredictable injuries around, but the medical info on *likely* recovery and permanent deficits are out there on the interwebs. Again, you do not want your reader doing that search for you. (Also, amnesia is not a yes or no thing - it's a complex condition with windows of memory that open and close as the brain injury heals - fascinating stuff, but as a literary device, no longer as simple a device as once it was.)
  5. Psychological injuries are far harder to treat effectively and often have lifelong impact. Witness the lasting damage PTSD can do. Try not to think of your most horrifying memory. That shit still haunts you, doesn't it? How long ago did that happen? And it's still with you. Mental/emotional trauma LASTS.
  6. Injury, whether mental, emotional, physical or all of the above, is a rock dropped in the pond of a story - it ripples through the entire community of the story. How does this injury affect everyone else in the story? Secondaries. Antagonist.
  7. How does a protagonist's injury change the direction of the story? Does it?
  8. If a protagonist makes a choice and gets hurt, that's one kind of injury. What happens when a protagonist makes a choice and someone else gets hurt? What does that scar look like? What's the guilt load? (Though please, leave the 'kill all the parents' to Disney, and all of the 'kill the poor hero's beautiful, loving wife who's only in the story so we can kill her off and motivate him to become the 14yo fantasy badass' to every Hollywood script ever.)
  9. Pair high emotion with injury and you have a recipe for lasting trauma. Careful how you sprinkle that around - too many of your fellow human beings are suffering for real. If it serves the story and is integral to it, go for it.
  10. Careful with miraculous cures - just like injury, most treatments follow known protocols - all of which can be found on line (if you follow some of the medical science blogs there are cutting edge experiments out there that are making some strides with mental/emotional injuries) - which is not to say 'go become an MD'. You aren't writing a know, you ARE.
That's the start of the list of - not so much rules - as suggestions. What else belongs here? Are there injuries that can't be recovered from? (I've read some romances that have made the hero's past so horrifying it's a wonder he's remotely sane, much less capable of emotional attachment - and I've had to call bullshit on a few of those.) Bring me more list items! This can't be all there is when it comes to torturing characters.

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