On Writing: Playing God With Your Creations

Mama Fisi
Mama Fisi's picture

Don't kill your darlings.  Torture them instead--it's much more fun!

Not too long ago, we had a short discussion here about whether or not writers are gods.  I'm of the opinion that we are--at least so far as being creators of universes, and the beings that populate them.  We give life and form to collections of words, and through the skill of our magic, we get other people to believe in our creations, to care about what happens to them, and to become emotionally involved with people and places that don't really exist.

Sometimes, we get a little too emotionally involved with our characters.  We lavish attention on them and pet and pamper them, and fancy great things for them, imagining who should play them in the movie version, and believing that they belong up in the pantheon of literary luminaries.

Or is that just me?

I have the bad habit of "falling in love" with my "leading men."  In other words, I get rather fond of my main male characters.  But none of them are ever perfect--in fact, most of them are cranky, quirky, and flawed.  Some are outright neurotic.  And all of them, all of them, have "girl trouble."  Oh, it usually works out all right in the end, because I am basically a romantic at heart, but in the meantime, I often put them through the wringer.

Am I projecting, or am I sympathizing?  I don't know for sure; I just know that the too-perfect hero type is dead boring to me.  And that an otherwise competent and powerful man brought to his knees by the nervousness of love is almost irresistable

I've recently been working on a storyline where one of the characters is a very reserved, very dry-witted Lieutenant.  He works for a bloodthirsty tyrant, and his job requires that he oversee her household of dimwitted slackers who would rather shirk their responsibilities than put in an honest day's work.  He is caught between having to please his boss, and being hated and resented by his staff.  Thus, he has had to adopt numerous strategies for coping, and for keeping himself alive.

He is the classic stiff-upper-lip type of English butler typified by the character of Jonathan Higgins from "Magnum, PI."  Personally rich, educated, and cultured, he has taken on this job among the savages because his family made an enormous loan to the country, and he is there to make sure the money does not get misspent.

He wasn't meant to be the main character in the story; but I was having trouble coming up with a workable plot for it, because while I knew what I wanted to do, something just felt wrong about it.  The actual main character is an American woman who learns, on her 25th birthday, that she is not only the heir to a barbaric foreign country, but that she has been betrothed to this Lieutenant since the day she was born, due to the terms of the loan his parents made to her great-grandmother--the bloodthirsty tyrant I mentioned earlier.  No one involved is happy with this situation, but they must do their best with it...while trying to figure out how to get around it.

The girl, who has a genuinely friendly personality, was trying to get along with her unexpected bridegroom, but he was originally intended to remain cold and aloof to her, and in the end, they would part ways without ever having fallen in love.  And the story just wasn't working for me.

Then I started to wonder what might happen if, somehow, this emotionless character would start to develop feelings for the girl, despite the fact that he had ulterior motives which definitely did not involve actually being in love with his betrothed wife.  Through her, he had ambitions of controlling the country, and his plan had her trusting him with running the place in her name, and of her going back to America when she inevitably got bored, leaving him free rein to act as regent.

The more I thought about it, the more fun I started having with writing the story.  Somehow, watching the breakdown of this uptight, priggish little twerp as his carefully-laid Machiavellian plans slowly start to unravel, is far more amusing to me.  He's not naturally remote and diffident--it's all an act, a mask he uses to protect his real thoughts and feelings from those who would seek to exploit him--a defense mechanism.  It makes him a far more human character.

But at what point does a writer's choice to discomfit her characters cross over into sadism?  I've been putting him into all sorts of painful, embarrassing, or agonizing situations, revelling in watching him squirm as he struggles to maintain his decorum.  Am I a cruel creator?  What's he ever done to deserve this kind of torture?

Nothing, of course, except have the misfortune to spring from my head.  If a writer can't have fun with her characters, then what's the point in creating them?

I'm not going to kill him; this is a comedy story, after all.  But I am going to put him through hell, most assuredly.  And it's not because I don't like him--in fact, I'm quite fond of him, he's become one of my favorite characters.

So what is it--is there some deep-seated reason why we like to see the officious and the pompous taken down a peg?  Somewhere in our subconscious, is Eliza Doolittle gleefully singing "Just You Wait, 'Enry 'Iggins?"

Or do we only hurt the ones we love?

If we, as writers, "kill our darlings," well, we won't have them to kick around anymore.  The only reason I can see to spend a lot of time developing a character you're going to kill, is if you created the character for just that purpose--and that his death will be profoundly meaningful to the story.

I used to reassure myself when I was reading fiction that, despite the levels of peril the hero faced, as long as there was still a substantial thickness of book in my right hand, he would survive.  The thinner the number of pages in my right hand, the more likely it became that the hero would actually get killed off.  I once thought it might be funny to spend the first chapter of a novel describing a character in exquisite detail, and then having him get hit by a bus, and the rest of the novel is about an entirely different character.  Or even to follow one random character after the next, jumping from one to another as they pass each other--the driver of the bus, then the paramedic, then the doctor, then the hot-dog vendor the doctor buys lunch from...you see what I'm saying.  Don't let the reader get too complacent.

But that was in the days before the Internet, and discussion forums, and readers who can give you instantaneous feedback.  A good friend of mine has the maxim "Write science fiction, and the world will beat a path to your door to tell you what you got wrong."  Or threaten to kill you if you knock off an audience favorite, as has happened to another friend of mine.  I now find myself obsessing over what my readership will think, and doing ghastly amounts of research to make certain that I get my facts right.  I'm under the gun to tell a compelling story that is at once both imaginative and believable.  And oh, it helps if I have fun while I'm doing it.

So--kill my darlings?  Not a chance.  I need to keep them around.   Lucky for them.