Thursday, April 9, 2009

Permanent Loss

I hoard things. When I set my mind on saving something, I do it well. The Connecticut State Quarter is one example. I have over 400 of them, just because I like the picture of the tree on the back. Maybe because of this, nothing gets my adrenaline going more than when a character in a story permanent loses something of consequence.

Grapes of Wrath. It's been years since I read it, but I remember fretting when the Joads started to eat their salted pork after only a few days on the road. Save the pork for an emergency!

Having a character lose something important to their success really makes for an exciting plot turn. Maybe because it feels so high risk, I rarely do it in my own stories! I make the mistake of playing it safe. But, I've come to realize that I have to push my characters to the edge of failure if I want to entertain myself and others. They have to lose all their money, or all their pride, or all their yummy salted pork.

Take something big away from your protagonist early on if you want their success to be that much more satisfying in the end.


  1. Good point, Davin. I have a similar problem – I tend to make my main character too perfect. Then, I have to take away or change something to make her/him real. Sometimes it happens all by itself, the story turns the character into a real person with flaws and problems. The more common her flaws are the better. It’s hard for me to create a character that’s very different from me. (Not that I’m perfect, but almost.:))

    When I saw the title of your post, first I thought you were going to talk about editing and how hard it is to let go off a paragraph or an entire scene even if we know they’re unnecessary stuff. Some say we should keep those scenes because we never know when they’ll come in handy. But it’s so hard to imagine another book with such a similar situation. That’s why it’s so hard for me to let go off a scene. At least I’ll keep words that I liked. I can use those almost any time, any situation, right? Almost.

  2. I so agree with you. My problem is often that I either don't take away the truly important thing or, if I do actually get to that point, I don't make the characters react in a strong enough manner. That is my weakness--and something I am striving to fix!

  3. I do not know if you need to take away something "big" from your protagonist or just allow the many little things they loose to loom up suddenly into an enormous loss. Kind of like knocking down a house one wall at a time until the whole thing collapses.

  4. Oh, wow, this is an awesome post, Davin! Now I'm wondering what I can do in Monarch to push those stakes to the edge. Because it just isn't edgy enough for me yet. Although I COULD do something between Devan and Clara that would raise the stakes so high I think I might lose readers over it....

    Often, truly edgy fiction kills of what I like to call the SAFE character. That always creates a very good story that ups the stakes and makes for an awesome ending. You know, like when Gandalf dies in LOTR. Now if Tolkien would have just left him dead. :D

  5. A very important concept and one I completely agree with. It makes the story so much more compelling when the MC has to come back from a great loss. My MC has actually lost a lot before the book begins and looses even more in the first chapter.

  6. I'm with the group who takes away stuff then has the protagonist just shrug his shoulders. Not very realistic or engaging.

  7. I don't think I've ever written anything where I don't make my characters suffer.

    It...builds character. :)


  8. I'm just opposite of Krisz, my characters tend to be very flawed. Perhaps to much so, as some have called them the dreadful "unlikeable".
    I agree w/ Screaming G.

  9. Yeah, and the thing about the salted pork is that it could've lasted forever. It's not like it was milk or something. :)

    It's funny, because I'm willing to push my characters, but am not always so willing to push myself. Hmmm....

  10. Krisz, I wish I started out like you. I'm usually drawn to characters I don't understand, so they're rarely perfect.

    Beth, Yes, I totally know what you mean. Sometimes I'll take away this unimportant thing but let my characters keep the big stuff. We're spoiling them! :)

    Marty, I think there are multiple ways to do this, definitely. Bit by bit can definitely work.

    Lady Glamis, great point. Yes, the thing that is lost can definitely be a character. It just bugs me sometimes when a character seems to be put in the story only for the sake of killing them later. I say, kill someone good if you're going to bother. Don't kill the "spare". :)

    Lotusgirl, My characters tend to have lost things before the story starts too. For me that goes into the realm of character development. I wonder if the sensation of loss is the same for the reader if it happens before or during the story.

    Justus, Yeah, ditch that group.

    Screaming Guppy, You learned a valuable lesson far before I did!

    Rena, I'm with you. I used to have to try really hard to create likable characters. Now I don't bother. I just let my characters be unlikable. I've decided that's my world. Unlikable is the new black.

    Anita, Exactly! Save the pork! Thank you for understanding.

  11. Davin,

    Yeah, I suppose my characters need to be "attached." Good for characters; bad for humans.

  12. I love to do this, and to find other ways to psychologically torment my characters. It makes it more fun for me to try to devise plausible ways out of the situations.

  13. "It just bugs me sometimes when a character seems to be put in the story only for the sake of killing them later."

    I know what you mean. A lot of times their deaths don't really change anything for the protagonist or the story. And too often I think, "Am I supposed to feel bad about this guy dying? I didn't even know him; he was just furniture."


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