Thursday, March 11, 2010

Blogiversary Re-post #3: Be Afraid

This is my most popular post by far. Mostly just because Janet linked to it, which spread it far and wide from there. :)

What is your biggest fear?

Rejection? Death? The unknown? Loss? Is your main character facing down that fear?

Why not?

I don't know where I read or heard this first: Robert McKee, maybe, or quite possibly Donald Maass, in his Surrey master classes. The advice: Find your fear, and dump it on the page. Make your character deal with it in just the way you've always dreaded. 

It's hard. I've done it, stared at the screen thinking "No, I can't talk about that. Even thinking about that scares me silly. How can I possibly live every day with that ache, that trickle of fear, for months?" You can. You should. It brings a vividness to your book that will otherwise be missing, that will become the vague, undefined lack earning you "I just didn't love this" comments by the bucketful.

However, if you truthfully portray your fear, and your characters react to it honestly, your book will resonate with readers. See, the trick is you're not the only one with that particular fear. If it's cathartic for you to deal with it on the page and come through the other side, it's cathartic for readers as well. They'll recognize the truth, connect with the powerful emotions. Rip through the pages to see if your MC will overcome it. Cheer for her when she does.

Like everybody, I've got several fears that underlie everything, that can rise to the surface with one word. One is rejection.

I'm not talking about book rejection—that's just a step in the process, in my opinion. I'm talking about when your best friend for years starts going cold. Stops calling you. Tells you one day, in front of all the people you most want to impress, that she can't believe she was ever friends with you in the first place, you're such a loser.

Yes, that happened to me.

Or when your boyfriend, or husband, starts spending long hours away from you. Turns away when you try to kiss him, or worse, pretends. But you can tell. It's different. It's over, you just haven't admitted it yet.

Or when you're a kid, and one of your parents leaves, for reasons that are perfectly valid from a grown-up's perspective, but to a kid just means they've failed somehow.

Jenna dealt with that fear. Natalie's facing it too, in a different way from a different source. But I think it's a common anxiety, and important. And very, very real to me. 

Another one I didn't even realize until I wrote Jenna was the fear of losing control. I hadn't realized the true terror of that moment when—because of medical reasons, or because you're just a kid—decisions about your life are taken out of your hands, and you no longer have a choice. I did that to Jenna. Of course she took control back, but she had to lose it first. I had to, to understand it.

Don't hold back. Don't sugar-coat issues, to make them safe. Face your fears. Make your characters go through those particular layers of hell. 

And then, at the end, let them win.


Linda G. said...

I kind of enjoy putting my characters through hell. Of course, my hell is maybe a little more comical than your hell, so I'm not a total sadist. ;)

Portia said...

It took me a long time to get to the place where I realized I wasn't putting my characters through enough. I think I was afraid to put them into situations I didn't know how I would resolve. But when I did it, it was ... freeing. And my character rose to the occasion!

Crystal Posey said...

You are so right! I found out just how cathartic writing could be while writing my first story. Not only is it away of facing fears, I use writing to say everything I ever wanted to say and never will. It's cathartic in it's own way. Sort of like an unsent letter in story form. Though it doesn't always make for great stories, lol. But facing fears, I think they do.

The biggest fears I have revolve around my children: their death, my death, or their abduction. I've tried putting the loss of a child on paper, but walked away sobbing. I'll try again, one day. :)

Nice post!