So, today’s muse comes fresh off a Guest Blog post by author James Preston at Writers in The Storm.com called “Is The Music Bad, Mommy? Tips For Doing Bad Things To Your Characters” (http://writersinthestormblog.com.)
Preston’s post hit home for this author, as I am in the midst of creating chaos for my main girl, and have been debating back and forth on just how bad it should be.
On a scale of 1-10, 1 being Disney, and ten invoking images of Freddy Cougar doing his worst on those fateful Halloween nights, I started out somewhere in between with a happy medium. In my current novel in progress, my protagonist has been set up with a dismal past that is currently coming back to haunt her. However, that past has been reworked several times now. Ahh, the fun and games here, which you, my fellow scribes, can no doubt relate to. Such is the glory, and guts, of revision!
So first, my girl’s past had all to do with a dodgy ex, who led her like a carrot to a rabbit, down the hole and off to the anticipated, and heavily pre-marketed pot of overflowing gold. Which of course left her dangling, with nothing to hold onto when she finally did get there. It was okay, but it didn’t seem as Preston might put it, quite “bad” enough. So I re-worked it. And Voila, out popped an even more dodgy history with seriously dark and evil secrets lurking in the closets, all of which now are coming out of said closets, and are dangling her angst even more precariously and hopefully, will keep a reader guessing as to which way it will eventually blow, and will she still be standing when it does.
It’s good. Better even. But the question still haunts me. Is it good enough to pass Preston’s “bad music” test? Will it make the readers eyes burn up the pages and their fingers keep turning as they must, absolutely must know, with certainty, that she’ll either be okay, or not! And aren’t’ they all secretly hoping for not, at least for a gripping short-term few chapters? As Preston so aptly put it, with a nod to the true King of super bad himself,
“As writers, we need to be brave, for we must first create characters we like, and then send them into situations where the music is very bad indeed, and watch as they struggle,…as they succeed or fail because that stress is what makes a story work. It is the engine that drives the writing bulldozer that Steven King talks about.”
I like the analogy because, like a bulldozer, our stories must have sufficient dirt to clean up after. Without the dirt, grime, and grit, the scenery is pretty and there’s nothing to doze! Our characters would be flat, pristine, and oh so kind, and very, very boring! Like the wolf in Red Riding Hood, our bad guys would not simply be dressed up in costume with grandma’s clothes, they would actually be grandma and instead of huffing and puffing to blow our houses down they would be in the kitchen, cooking up a batch of chicken soup and spoon-feeding it to our heroine! Not that there’s anything wrong with chicken soup. But that only gets you so far in a story and discerning readers might want to know what happens next, as in maybe the soup is poisoned, or even before, as in where did the chicken’s rubber meet the road, and just how did it wind up in the pot in the first place? At some point, we have to put a little meat on the chicken’s bones, and then let the reader watch as the flesh gets torn off, piece by piece in an intoxicating finale! That is what will keep their eyes super-glued and their mouths hanging open, as they read on into the night and tell all their friends about it the next day.
However, bad for bad sake, is not good. Or, as Preston point out in his number two tip, “Make the horror mean something.” Don’t throw bad stuff in there, just for the sake of being bad. Tie it into your guys or gals back story. Give them a reason for robbing that bank or driving that Bronco down the freeway at 100 mph with 30 cops hot on their tails. Our readers are smart, and action for action sake will be spotted immediately as a device, simply used to move a story forward. And no one likes to be talked down to. Readers want meat, they want substance and grit and they will find it when your characters do too, amidst all their chaos and confusion! Let your characters grow with the dirt and your readers will thank your for it in the end.
And don’t forget to talk to your characters too. Yes, I said talk to them. As Preston mentions, this is a great way to get them to tell you just how bad they should be and exactly how they should go about it. I have a character in my story who did just that and winded up being nasty as the night is long. In short, I think my readers will love to hate him. I know I do. And that my friends, is some bad ass music!
What bad things are your characters doing, and how are they doing it? I’d love to hear. And just what are they telling you to guide their paths?? Stir up the pot and have a conversation, and let me know!
Thanks for your thoughts Michael. Already fixed!
Glad you got something out of it!
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Good article. I’m currently reading a book and just finished a passage where I felt like the writer was using action for action’s sake so your comment about it being spotted as a device hit home.
(I have one small nitpick: it should be Freddy Krueger instead of Freddy “Cougar”)
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