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If a Main Character’s Going to Suffer, Then So Should the Writer

Today’s writing-related Challenge of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, has to do with writers suffering right alongside their main characters.

At least a little bit.

At least during their stories’ climax, or darkest moments.

It’s the least we writers can do for making our main characters go through what we make them go through. And let’s face it – we make them go through a lot of rotten stuff during the story-telling process.

Heartbreak. Torture. Ridiculous amounts of stress. Making them wonder if they’re losing their minds. Their lives. Their very souls.

We writers make our protagonists run a whole gauntlet of negativity. So it’s only fair we suffer a little bit in the process.

It’s also just a good writing practice to bleed onto our pages a bit here and there. Keep that in mind as you read the following challenge:

Really get inside your main character’s head for the “darkest moment.”

You want your readers to wonder which way the climax, or climactic moment, is going to go. Is it possible that things are actually not going to work out? Is this the end for the protagonist? What’s going to happen!

That’s what your protagonist is freaking out about, so your readers should be too.

In order to make that happen, you need to really – mentally – put yourself in your main character’s shoes.

I should probably stress that one word again. Mentally. You need to put yourself in your main character’s shoes mentally.

So, for instance, if your main character is tied to the train tracks out along some barren stretch of land, please, please, please don’t try to replicate the scene. That’s not safe or smart. Plus, it’s probably a more time-consuming way of connecting with your protagonist than it needs to be.

You’d have to research where the closest barren stretch of train-tracked earth is, then drive to it and arrange yourself out on the rails.

That would take time. Perhaps a lot of it. When you could instead be writing the next phase of your literary climax.

So instead, close your eyes. Take a deep breath. And then imagine you’re right there in the moment.

You’re a creative writer. You’ve got a good imagination. So it shouldn’t be too difficult.

This is what comes to mind when I think about that wild, wild West situation above…

I’ve personally never laid down on railroad tracks before, but I imagine it’s not very comfortable. If I’m lying horizontally across it, it’s going to make for one really uneven bed, what with the thick steel bars biting into my back and legs.

Or how about the ropes binding me? They’re tight and cutting off my circulation. Even if I had a knife in my hands to saw through my restraints, which I don’t, I don’t think my fingers would be able to work properly when they’re so numb.

One part of me wishes the same could be true for my spine, which is aching from the unnatural position it’s been forced into.

Off in the distance, I can hear the distant sound of a train’s whistle, sending my brain into a state of denial. The words “it can’t have come to this” run through my head on repeat.

It can’t have come to this. It just can’t have!

Yet my body knows what my mind refuses to acknowledge, and so a surge of sheer panic races through my stomach. My chest feels compressed like I’m buried under a pile of boulders, and it hurts to draw in each breath.

The train whistle sounds again, closer this time, and I can smell my fear now. It’s sickeningly sweet: cloying even.

Nauseated, I try to roll myself off the tracks again, but it doesn’t work. Of course it doesn’t work. Why would I have ever thought it would work?

A hysterical sob leaves my constricted throat, drowned out by the clacking sound of my oncoming, unavoidable fate.

It’s those kinds of personalized touches – the sounds and sensations – that add real drama to a literary climax. They make it more realistic and more tense, dragging it out until readers are dreading the conclusion while simultaneously begging to know what’s going to happen.

That’s the writer’s climactic challenge right there. And the only way to conquer that challenge is by spreading the pain and suffering around between the main character, the reader… and yourself.


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