Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What Doesn't Kill You...

I love listening to podcasts. I'm usually home with the toddler on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I enjoy having something in the background to listen to as we play or putter around the house without resorting to the television.

One of my favorite shows is NPR's This American Life. I listened to one of the most recent episodes about people who had close calls with death (title What Doesn't Kill You). I was riveted to this episode. The first part was about comedienne Tig Notaro. She went onstage a day or two after finding out she had stage 2 cancer breast cancer and opened the show with, "Hi, I have cancer. How are you?" She then went on to talk about all of the other stuff that happened to her in the few months before that diagnosis, and let me tell you, it made all of those stereotypical, depressing country music songs sound like a trip to Disneyworld. For a few months, she had more drama packed into her life than the most outrageous soap opera. And yes, she's funny. The set is funny.  I'm amazed at how much bravery she showed by getting up on stage and talking about her life like that. If you don't listen to the entire episode, at least listen to her part.

This got me thinking about writing (as so many things do) and how awful (or not) us writers can be to our characters. Joss Whedon is ruthless when it comes to his characters. They suffer. A lot. They die. Sometimes they come back. He puts them through the ringer and shows what they're made of. On the other end of the extreme are the writers who are scared to do anything bad to their characters. I'm thinking of Twilight, which was a huge disappointment for many reasons, one of which is that nothing bad ever really happens to Bella, with the exception of some stuff at the end of the first book. And I guess what happens at the beginning of the second, although I thought she had a chance to make a new life for herself, but I digress, and I don't want to spoil the series in case some teenage girl out there who hasn't read it has stumbled across this blog.

I really do try to make my characters suffer. If my pulse is racing or tears are stinging my eyes while I'm writing, then I know I'm on the right track. I want to find out what my characters made of. I like seeing them pull through the worst possible scenario I can think up. I think readers appreciate it when characters struggle.


  1. I agree ... but at the same time, I prefer happy endings. I will be happy to ride the roller coaster with the characters except when the author doesn't provide a payoff at the end. Robin Hobb's Assassin trilogy is a prime example of a character being put through endless hell. I'm kinda a big softie, though. I wonder where the top of the bell curve is on this kind of preference ... ?

    1. I enjoyed the Assassin trilogy, but I found the ending quite depressing. I think that's why I started another series of Robin Hobb's but couldn't even finish the first book because I was afraid of going through all that only to feel sad again! I do enjoy happy endings myself, but I also like feeling that the characters deserve that happy ending, which I didn't get at all from the Twilight series.

      IMHO, a great example of torturing a character but allowing them moments of well-deserved happiness can be found in the Vorkosigan series, which I think you're a fan of, too, IIRC.