John Ostrander on Making Your Characters Miserable

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by John Ostrander

Stranger Than Fiction, a 2006 film from director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster’s Ball, and World War Z, among others), is a favorite of Mary’s and mine. It that starred Will Farrell in a very atypical Will Farrell role, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, and Emma Thompson.

The story concerns an IRS auditor named Harold Crick who starts to hear a narrator in his head. The voice turns out to be a world famous author who is writing a story about an IRS auditor named Harold Crick. The author, Karen Eiffel, always kills off her main character at the end of the book. The real Harold’s only hope to survive is to find the reclusive author and convince her not to kill him. Eventually, they meet.

Karen Eiffel, understandably, is freaked to encounter an actual Harold Crick. He’s just as she pictured him. They both know that if she kills him off in prose, he will die in reality. She is confronted with the reality of what she does; Harold Crick isn’t just a creature of her imagination. He’s a flesh and blood person.

As a writer, I find that notion unnerving.

I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to have a somewhat similar experience. At the Motor City Con I got a chance to meet the actor, Michael Rowe, who was playing Floyd Lawton – Deadshot – on the TV series Arrow. And, yes, a bit of Stranger Than Fiction ran through my head. Of course, Mike Rowe is not Deadshot; he was perfectly nice and friendly and complimentary. However, I had a few nanoseconds of feeling, well, anxious.

When it comes right down to it, I don’t think I would want to meet most of my characters face to face. Why? Because I’m the guy who makes their lives miserable. I can see most of them wanting to take a swing at me – or worse. For them, I am the Creator. I incarnate their lives and their adventures. I’m god. Notthe god but a god (as spake Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day).

Have you ever had a day when you really just wanted to haul off and hit your Creator? I know I have and I’m an agnostic. When my late wife Kim was dying, I was sitting in the car at one point, hitting the steering wheel and cussing out God. I thought we had a deal; I would accept her death and she would die without pain. That day she was in excruciating pain.

I talked it over with my pastor, The Rev Phillip Wilson, and he thought my cussing out God was a good thing. He said that the Bible had lots of instances where the human argued or yelled at God. Towards the end of the story of Job, the title character learns that all his troubles stem from a bet between God and Satan and lets loose on Yahweh for destroying his life. Job was justified if you ask me.

God’s answer? Essentially, God skirts the issue and demands, “Hey, where were you when I created everything?” He tells Job that he’d better button it. Not a real answer but I can see why Job didn’t press the issue. This is Yahweh after all who drowned the earth in a fit of pique.

So why do I do it? Why do I make my characters’ lives so miserable?

It’s for the sake of the story.

When we were first married, Kim used to ask me how would I react in such and such a situation. How would I feel?  (I could get myself into trouble by suggesting that this is the sort of speculative question some women like to ask their men. I don’t want to get in trouble by saying that, although I admit to thinking it.) I would always answer “I dunno. Ask me when we get there.”

I felt and feel that’s a fair answer. We don’t know how we would react in a given situation or facing this or that pressure. We only know how we’d like to think we would act but until you’re in that moment, you don’t know. You can’t until you’re actually faced with the situation.

How we react in those situations reveal who we really are – not who we think we are or hope we would be. In a story, it reveals character. The tougher the situation, the clearer we see who the character really is. It’s one of the rules about character. It’s not what they say, it’s what they do that really matters – just like in life.

By putting my characters through the wringer, I reveal who they are and the reader, by vicarious experience, may learn something more of who they are. That makes the whole exercise worthwhile. That can make the story compelling and memorable.

So what I do to my characters is not out of sadism (well, not only out of sadism) but for the sake of the story.

However, I still wouldn’t want to meet GrimJack or most of my other characters in a darkened alley in the middle of the night.

Brrrr.


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. This post originally appeared in his blog at ComicMix.