Graduate’s Corner: Torture Your Character, Capture Your Reader by Elaine Isaak

Elaine Isaak is the author of The Singer’s Crown (Eos, 2005), and sequels The Eunuch’s Heir (Eos, 2006), and The Bastard Queen (Swimming Kangaroo, 2010). Her short fiction has recently appeared in Live Free or Undead and Escape Clauses. A graduate of the Odyssey Speculative Fiction Workshop, Elaine writes traditional fantasy in a mythic and historic vein, harrowing tales of complex human relationships in the realms of fantasy. Magic may offer the choice of transcendence–or tragedy–and the quest never leaves you untouched. Above all else, know this: you do not want to be her hero. She has written how-to articles for the Writer Magazine, and authored the Lady Blade fantasy writing column at AlienSkin magazine for three years. Her speaking engagements have included local chapters of Romance Writers of America, the World Science Fiction and World Fantasy conventions.

I am a strong advocate for the abuse of imaginary people–not because I am, by nature, cruel and wicked (at least–I hope not), but because it will make your characters stronger, your stories better, and you–a better writer.

It’s been shown in a series of depressing studies that people don’t fundamentally care about strangers. We can be told over and over about a war in a foreign land, or refugee camps, or starving children . . . and we are briefly sad or outraged, but that’s the end of our investment in the story.

Fantasy worlds represent the most distant possible of nations. Not only are they faraway places that readers have never visited (and thus have no personal connection to), but they don’t (sorry, guys!!) actually exist. There’s no real reason for the reader to care what happens there. Until you give them a character to care about. Once you put a name and a face on that starving child, once you tell the personal story of an individual in the refugee camp or reveal the life of a particular soldier, the reader is engaged. It is the relationship of the character to the conflict that makes the reader want to read more.

Conflict exists on a variety of levels, from the intimate psychological problems of a character in conflict with himself, to the scene we so often picture for fantasy novels: the massed battle on an epic stage in which kingdoms shall be won or lost, worlds destroyed, and heroes made. And it’s the making of heroes I want to talk about today. It is the task of the hero to confront trouble head-on. To ride into conflict, however reluctantly, and take it upon himself to make the world better–often through a physical intervention in a dangerous situation. We want the reader to cheer for our hero, yes, but we NEED the reader to fear for him. Without that fear, there is no urgency to the book. The battle may be lost–so what? The person we really care about is not at risk.

So we put our characters at risk. Not only that, but we recognize that escalating conflict over the course of a story, book or series, calls for a similar escalation of risk for the hero. In order to draw the reader in to an imagined world, we provide an individual to care about, but in order to keep that reader on the edge of her seat, we make bad things happen to that person. The reader can easily dismiss this likeable hero and his imaginary world, if the bad stuff doesn’t stick–that is, if there are no consequences to the risks he takes.

The earlier you begin to add layers of risk and consequence, the earlier the reader feels confident that you mean what you say. You say that the villain is a great swordsman. If they see the hero take a hit, and they continue to feel the effects of his injury chapters later: they will believe in your world, and they will trust you as a writer. Each time something bad happens–a significant risk, followed by a serious consequence–it accrues reality for your work.

Characters do not just risk bodily harm, but also psychological damage–carrying the weight of events and of the terrible choices we force them to make. The greatest works draw these risks together, sending waves of stress crashing on the character from within and without, building tension for the reader as she wonders how the hero will survive.

I don’t want my books to be a walk in the proverbial park. I want them to be a breathless, headlong ride into a dark forest, full of monsters, where, at any moment, you just might lose your head. I want the reader to be clinging to the back of that horse, desparately afraid that the hero’s wounded hand will let go, and they will both be plunged into a fight for their lives. I want the reader so invested in these people that don’t exist that they want to throw themselves between me and my hero, just to stop me hurting him again. . . . I want them to put down my book, trembling, thinking, “What a ride!” and longing for the next adventure.

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