Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Be Cruel to Be Kind

Hamlet:

I do repent; but heaven hath pleas'd it so
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. So again good night.
I must be cruel only to be kind.
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.

Hamlet Act 3, scene 4, 173–179

I wasn't actually talking about this play, but any chance we have to quote the bard really ought to be taken, methinks. I'm not talking about the song lyrics either. Not the Nick Lowe song or the Letters to Cleo song.

No, alas, I'm talking about characters. Or rather, more specifically my main character in my current WIP. What I mean here is that in order to be kind to your characters in the long run (in the sense of making them believable, and therefore being successful in getting people to actually read about them) you have to be cruel to them in the short term. Or at least, if you don't have to, you ought to.

As writers it can be difficult to torture what are essentially our loved ones, our little darlings, but if we go to easy on them no reader will give a damn about their tale, and no agent or editor will take a chance on making them known. Think about your most favorite stories. Did the characters not suffer through adversity? Would you have rooted for Katniss as hard if Panem and President Snow had not been so unbelievably cruel and unfair to her? Would you have cried as hard as I did for Frodo when Samwise put him on his back to tackle the final slope of Mount Doom if you had not carried the addictive power of the One Ring all the way across Middle Earth with him?

In the first several drafts I drafts of WARRIOR-MONKS I did a pretty good job, I hope, of making my MC's story a tough one, at least his backstory. There were far too many flahsbacks, and most had to be cut, but the ones that I've kept are good and cruel. The problem is that his life at school, his current situation, is far too kind. Oh he gets in trouble and whatnot, but when he does they go too easy on him.

So I'm working on a scene today in which I need to ramp up the cruelty. I'm going to be working on it hard today so I won't be visiting many blogs, but in the meantime I would love to hear from all of you on how well you're doing at being cruel to your characters. Specific examples from your own work, or even from known literature would be much appreciated.

Thanks!

36 comments:

Sarah said...

This is a great point. I am so in favor of cruelty to characters, as long as it's in the service of the story. It's too easy to pull punches and let them off easy, but then a happy ending (if that's what you write) doesn't feel earned and isn't satisfying.

Donna Weaver said...

But by the same virtue the writer can get carried away and be too cruel to the character. To be honest, in Mockingjay, that's how I felt especially with the almost afterthought resolution. They didn't seem balance. "Oh, and they were finally okay at the end. Kinda." Blah

But I agree that great adversity that gets me emotionally invested in the MC's satisfying (doesn't necessarily mean success) conclusion is the best.

Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn, Warbreaker, Way of Kings, Elantris, and last books of Wheel of Time) does a great job with this.

Good blog subject, Matthew.

Matthew Rush said...

I completely agree Donna, that was why I LOVED Hunger Games so much, but struggled with my believability in Catching Fire when they had to go back into the arena.

Great point.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I agree with Donna too about Mockingjay. And your post in general. I spent a number of drafts making my character too perfect and not having enough challenges before I finally got that this was not showing character growth or an interesting, fully developed character.

Good luck with your writing today.

Jessica Bell said...

Good luck with that! Sorry no time to find example, but if you ever need help with anything just email me :o)

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

Gotta be cruel to be kind. ;)
Have fun being cruel today!

Kelly said...

Go get him, Matthew! My mc does have a series of mishaps throughout. But no blood shed. :)
Now I have that (is it a 70's song?) song in my head!

Slamdunk said...

Depending on the period and the story, nothing gives me the shivers like reading about medieval torture--like a character observing a prisoner quartering by horse.

Wait that is probably not good for a YA novel...

Renae said...

Gret points Matt, I love tormenting my characters. Not quite sure what that says about me, but it sure entertains my betas!

Em-Musing said...

Great point. Hmm? What can I do to torture my characters today?

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

I totally agree with you. I'm going to keep this in mind as I craft my new MC's journey. Thanks for the reminder, and best of luck with revisions :))

Marieke said...

Very true, I'm all in favor or being cruel to be kind too. (Erm, in my writing, that is!)

Also, Hamlet quote ftw ^.^

mshatch said...

It must be the dark side in me that enjoys putting my characters in danger, making them suffer, even killing them upon occasion.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

very true. I also try and make my MC make things worse. So they try and fix things and it just Effs them up even more. Nothing's worse than knowing you screwed things up even more, or that the bad times are your fault

Melissa Gill said...

So true Matt. It's hard to beat them up like that, but if you don't do it, the reader is left wondering where the story is.

Kristi Helvig said...

An agent at a conference I attended said that all writers had to ask themselves "Am I being as mean as possible to my MC?" It made me realize I was being too nice to mine in my first YA. I just finished writing my second YA, and I was downright cruel to her--but it's a much better story. Great post! :)

Old Kitty said...

I've recently re-read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and I guess you can't be as cruel as John Singer's fate - deaf, unable to speak, his devotion to his only friend thwarted, he drifts through the story absorbing others' emotional turmoil while unable to vent his own. Or there is Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. In this account - his childhood is one litany of abuse, he survives bloody European wars, his beloved wife dies and he is thrust in the midst of England breaking away from Rome! :-)

I can see how a kind of benign cruelty certainly beefs up the main character to loftier ideals!!

Take care
x

Holly Ruggiero said...

It’s kind of weird that in our writerly lives it good to be rotten. Actually, we have to it we want to be exciting.

Lisa_Gibson said...

Ah yes, there has to be that balance there of cruelty and kindness. It can be tough for me to be terribly cruel sometimes but it's important for the reader to be invested in the story. :) Great post!
Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

K. M. Walton said...

I read this book called The Novelist's Boot Camp and he says (and I'm paraphrasing) that if the absolute worst thing doesn't happen to your character then it isn't satisfying for the reader. Readers want drama - it's sort of the whole reason we are compelled to get to the end of the book.

Colene Murphy said...

Good luck on your cruelness today! It is essential. I always like to think about it, instead of putting them in bad places, working them out of the bad places they had to go. It helps. ;)

Angie said...

I cry at that scene in Lord of the Rings every single time I read it. I am unspeakably cruel to my characters. They usually forgive me, though. Once they reach the happy ending anyway. Good luck today!

Elana Johnson said...

Very true. My agent once told me that she appreciated the way I could "break my characters apart before putting them back together."

And so that's what I keep trying to do. It's hard sometimes, I'll admit that. Good luck!

LTM said...

great. Now I've got "cruel to be kind" stuck in my head... ;p j/k

Well, you know SK said "kill your darlings"; although I think he was talking more about your favorite passages that weren't contributing.

Go for it! Make 'em bleed. I think I shared when I was going through this in my last WIP. It really does make the whole stronger. Good luck~ :o) <3

Angela Ackerman said...

That's the evil Matt we know and love!

I think you bring up a common pitfall--often we create complex and difficult backstories to explain why a character is the way they are, and show why they act and see life in a certain way. BUT, as you've found out, this doesn't mean that we can let them off easy now. The ante must always be upped, and the character has to be challenged to a point that their past experience is only one facet, and merely a launch point to what they must now face.

Good luck with the torturing!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

lbdiamond said...

Yup, you gotta be cruel to be kind...erm, sounds counterintuitive, don't it?

GREAT POST!!!!

My question: in our quest to always keep upping the ante, how do you manage "down time" and "rest" between episodes of MC torture?

Matthew Rush said...

That's a great question lbdiamond. In the scenes I am writing today, my character is at reform school, so in between the punishments he endures, there is some time for reflection on his situation and interaction with friends, but these examples would obviously differ greatly depending on what kind of story you are telling.

Thanks for stopping by!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I can tell you the cruelest thing I've done to Byron in the sequel to my book - I introduced a female character! Enough said.

DEZMOND said...

you already know that I like when everything good happens to good characters since I sometimes look on the world through pink coloured glasses.

Simon C. Larter said...

Oh, dear God! I just finished "As I Lay Dying," in which Faulkner was so irredeemably cruel to his characters, it went beyond the pail. (I just like the image of something going beyond a small bucket off in the distance, despite the fact it's incorrect as far as the saying goes.)

Anyway. You can be cruel to your characters, yeah, but for the love of chiclets, give us *something* to hang on to at the end, not just more of the same deathly drama. Curse you, Faulkner! *shakes fist*

Nicole Zoltack said...

Awesome post. I'm reworking my fantasy YA and am specifically looking for ways to increase the tension in the story - and I've been more cruel to my characters with each new scene I add. What doesn't kill your characters makes them stronger and more real.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Hmmm...I try not to torture anyone in picture books. It tends to make little kids cry. (wink) I do enjoy ya books that involve emotional turmoil.

Susan R. Mills said...

Being cruel to my characters was something I had to get used to. I still find it hard sometimes. But, yes, we must do it! Good luck with your scene.

maine character said...

I read somewhere that our job is to chase our characters up a tree and then start throwing rocks at them.

Luke Skywalker certainly got kicked around from the very start - he gets knocked out by a Tusken Raider, finds his family burned, gets sucked into the Death Star, and then doesn't just fall into garbage, but gets pulled under by a monster and then the walls start closing in. And that girl there he's hot for? His sister! How cruel is that?

But really, it's something I've had to work on, too. I'm always crossing out things like, "Have some cookies before you go on your walk," to "No food for you - get on the front line so the first volley don't kill our best men."

ali said...

Isn't cruelty such a great word? Seriously. Enjoy the torture, Matt!

Steve said...

Day late here, but check out the scene of David Lurie and his daughter coming home from walking the dogs in Coetzee's DISGRACE; somewhere near the middle of the book. Haven't read anything as frightening or cruel since.