Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Make Your Darlings Suffer


It's too early to know exactly what influence George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire will have on the fantasy genre, though it's a safe bet that it will be significant.  But it's pretty obvious that the Red Wedding scene all by itself will have a significant impact -- and a good one, too.

One of the signature weaknesses of a new writer is a tendency to be too nice to one's characters.  Some weaknesses, such as a propensity to spend five to ten pages of a story "setting the scene" before finally getting around to  the plot, can be cured simply by clearly explaining why they're a bad idea and how they can be circumvented.  But when all of one's upbringing is devoted into turning one into a decent person, it can be hard to undo.  "Look, I'll say to my students, on those occasions when I teach.  "It would be a heinous act to throw a woman into the path of an oncoming train.  But we celebrate Tolstoy for doing so in Anna Karenina.  These are not real people we're dealing with here.  They're only words on paper.  Make those bastards suffer!"

They hear but, half in love with their own creations, they do not easily believe.

There's a lot to admire about the Red Wedding, including the fact that it took the readers and later viewers by surprise.  I'm sure there are many new writers out there at this very moment feverishly plotting out their own massacres in imitation.  And that's good, because while most of those bloodlettings are destined for the drawer, they're a positive step toward publication.  Many more writers are taking to heart George's exemplary willingness to kill off characters who've won the readers' affections.  That's also good.  But the chief lesson to be learned hers is to let your darlings suffer.

Why is this desirable?  Because there are things we must learn in life which can only be learned through suffering.  If that suffering is experienced only in our imaginations, so much the better.

Also, it can be wonderfully entertaining.

The opening of the Honest Trailers spoof of Game of Thrones begins "From fiction's most notorious serial killer..."  But let's be honest here.  It should be "From fiction's most beloved serial killer..."  I trust that any new writers reading this are taking the implicit moral to heart.



David Stone said...

I remember a certain fantasy series that obsessed me as an adolescent... it was a sequel series to another very popular series. The main characters were basically all carried over from the first series, basically had survived all kinds of dangerous unscathed, and even more ridiculously, were all the best of friends. Of course the reader had been groomed to be emotionally attached to all of them.

So at the end of book 1 (series 2), a prophecy is made that definitely one of this large company of friends will die in the course of a great quest they are about to set out on.

So of course the hopeless fan-person is hooked and has to know who bites it. Turns out, its a character new to the second series who moreover has no back story, no dialog (due to being a mute), and no development. Just a bald, silent nobody who hovers about for four books so the author can pull a ridiculous cop-out for his ridiculous gimmick.

Its hard not to be a self-loathing nerd sometimes, knowing how engrossed I once was with this garbage. But at least I grew out of it (the garbage, not fantasy)within a few years.

Granted the author in question died well-off I'm sure. But I think anyone with scruples should follow your advice.

TheOFloinn said...

When I was agonizing over this very point regarding a child in "Melodies of the Heart," I asked Stan Schmidt what he thought. His answer was, "Of course, the child must die..."

JL Stillman said...

The fact that there was going to BE a wedding nearly overloaded my suspension of disbelief. At the very least, when it turned red, my suspension didn't collapse.

Martin prunes his plot branches without remorse. I hope it makes for better fruit in the end.