One of the hardest parts of writing is knowing when you have to let your characters fail. I’ve been working on Please Give, the novel I detailed on Tuesday, for several months. These months have flown by because it includes characters I really like. I like all of my stories’ protagonists, to an extent; even the ones that are less savory. I like them enough to tell their story, yet also think they deserve exactly what happens to them.
What’s more difficult, though, is writing situations where I know they’re getting what they deserve, and yet it breaks my heart that it has to be that way. As I mentioned on Tuesday, the protagonist of Please Give, Beth, has trouble opening up to people. She worries that if she opens up, she’ll say the wrong thing — and many times, she does. She often has such high aspirations that she either gets overly proud, or else places so many expectations on herself, that she falls hard when she thinks they haven’t been met or acknowledged. Her worst tendency, though, is her tendency to close up even when those around her want to know what she’s thinking, or want to be there for her. All of these things lead to various conflicts throughout the book, especially with the people she loves.
I care about her, and as such, I find myself getting in the trap of trying to fix her mistakes for her after I’ve written them. I’ll read something, and see what more she could have said to make the situation turn out better, and I’ll add it in. Sometimes it’s a necessary revision, as it removes unnecessary conflict, or is genuinely something I forgot to include. Usually, though, I force myself to take it back out. It’s the story that’s there, and while I have the power to change that, it’s not a power that should be abused. It’s my job as the author to tell her story, not to fix it for her so that she’ll never fail. Sometimes she has to, and usually, she needs to.
As I’ve written and revised, I have to remind myself repeatedly that a story where no mistakes are made isn’t a story at all. It’s difficult watching my characters stumble, and admittedly, I’ve helped myself move past that by writing down notes or even passages where the conflict is later resolved, just to assure myself and the characters that things will turn out okay. There are other conflicts, though, that don’t see a happy resolution. They’re mistakes, and they’re mistakes that my character feels guilty about; but they exist, and sometimes they don’t disappear with a magic wand, just like in real life. Real life, though, goes on, even without a swift conflict resolution or an author going back and pressing “Delete.” It moves on, as does the story, and as should I.