Advancing the Story Without Traumatizing Your Characters

You know stories need stakes. You know you need to get your readers to care. So? You try to make the stakes big enough and scary enough to drive the story forward. But you don’t HAVE to traumatize characters — or readers — to advance your story.

From the titular panel at Balticon53, Jean Marie Ward, Eric Hardenbrook, Steven Wilson, Jamaila Brinkley, and Mattie Brahen shared their tips and tricks.

Conflict versus Trauma

We all know that stories thrive on conflict. If everyone is in agreement, marching forward, you don’t have much of a story.

So, what’s the difference? When you boil it down to their core:

Conflict is:

  • when two or more entities have opposing goals — or at least, not-aligned ones

Trauma is:

  • a change that damages you
  • is harmful

Now, a caveat: There isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition of what is traumatic. Thanks to people’s pasts, their mental health, and their current emotional state, what is traumatic to one person may be fine for another person.

Where Some People Draw The Line

This is clearly not a comprehensive list, but the panelists shared their following lines.

  • Explicit sexual abuse
  • Dismemberment
  • Kids shoved out of windows
  • Children soldiers
  • Explicit assault/violence
  • Killing the cat/dog

How To Raise the Stakes

Without trauma, what are other ways you can raise the stakes?

  1. Family
    • Protecting/defending them
    • Handling with their expectations
    • Dealing with the family history and fraught relationships
    • etc
  2. Survival
    • Human versus nature (or space) is a classic story of stakes.
    • Hunger
    • Illness
    • Injury
    • Weather
  3. Meaningful relationships
    • Trying not to disappoint people
    • Satisfying the needs of different people
    • Handling emotional baggage — the main characters OR those they love
  4. Separation
    • Take them away from their friends or family — this can be as serious as fleeing in the night or as light hearted as a RomCom

If You Do Include Trauma: What About ‘Trigger Warnings’?

It’s contentious.

On one hand – Books shouldn’t shy away from hard topics. Sometimes, trauma is exactly what needs to be worked through in a story. Plus, you don’t want to give away spoilers!

On the other, there people are dealing with depression and loss and are trying to avoid stories about suicides. Or have dealt with miscarriages and find it upsetting to read about them.

Since we’re talking about books, and the characters being traumatized are usually the main characters — we typically get to watch them work through their trauma, grow and manage to move past it. (Or, become Batman.) And seeing that healing can be good for people.

However – dealing with that can be exhausting, especially with a good writer and an immersive story.

Especially in genre fiction, people are looking for escape from the real world. And there’s plenty of books that offer that without triggering content — if the reader knows where to look.

Clearly, one cannot give a trigger warning about everything that might be traumatic to anyone. But, some are some triggers implicit in certain genres – like suspense, or thrillers, or military fiction.

Personally, I think there are ways of writing blurbs that can hint at the content within. We already rate these things for movies.

When books are used in schools, they often have themes listed, I think we should be able to do that.

Mine would probably be something like: “This book deals with themes of: religion, magic, suicide ideation, violence, and the killing of both humans and animals.” Then again, I’m mostly writing young adult, so letting libraries and teachers know can help them know if my book is right for their freshman class, or if they should save it for their seniors.

Clearly, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. This one is mine.

Compounding Traumas

Once you’ve decided that your story should include traumatic events, you need to look at who you’re traumatizing.

This is obviously not always the case, but very often, when you look at which characters are being traumatized in books, you can see a pattern. It’s not usually the man in authority. It’s the woman. The person of color. The lgbtqa character.

Is this due to cultural biases about who can be traumatized? Maybe. It’s impossible to know.

There are obvious exemptions from this: look at Iron Man and his phobias.

But, if you’re traumatizing women, people of color, non-cis het characters in order to motivate your main character? You’ve fallen into what is known as the “fridging” trope — named after a Green Lantern comic where his girlfriend was killed and shoved in a fridge just to motivate him.

Try to do better. It’s lazy writing, overdone, and often done to a 2-dimensional character.

Moving Beyond Trauma

Can limiting characters, through trauma or otherwise, make them stronger?

It makes for a more compelling story. We’re drawn to stories of people overcoming obstacles. Just be sure to avoid stereotypes — like the brave little disabled kid, who, with relentless optimism, overcomes ALL obstacles.

But without limits, there’s no conflict.

Be certain that you’re giving your traumatized characters agency to make decisions — not just react to what you do to them.

Captain America dealt with his trauma through altruism.

Black Widow dealt with hers by devoting herself to her job.

Which brings us to the flip side, you can give characters advantages — and regrets about what they had to give up to get them.

The panelists sitting at the table.

I know these notes covered array of topics, some only tangentially related to the premise. But, it’s good to remember that stakes don’t always have to be paid in flesh and blood.


Let me know what you think!
Do you hate the idea of sharing themes about your novel?

Do you have a better method in mind?
Do you have some ideas of new ways to raise the stakes — without destroying your character’s psyche?

NOTE: Opinions are welcome, as are discussions, but I’m not going to argue with people. I know I’m unlikely to sway your mind.

Facebook For Characters!

Ch@ractR

Have you ever wished there was a facebook, but for fictional characters?

Today, I’m going to be talking about one of the less mainstream social media websites. It just got out of Beta but is growing fast:

Ch@ractR at charactrRealms.com

The website for writers, artists, and fans to post as or follow FICTIONAL CHARACTERS!

charApril1

As usual, you create an account, with whatever username you want. Brand consistency can be useful if you’re planning on adding stuff you want associated with your name. Otherwise, (I can’t believe I’m saying this), you can use a different username.

When you do post, it will always be under [CharacterName]+[a random number]. Once you’ve posted to a character’s page once, your number will remain consistent.

But what sort of characters qualify? CLEARLY, there are still some negotiations underway for licensed characters, but pended approval…

Types of characters:

  • Established worlds
    • Disney
    • Harry Potter
    • etc
  • Created worlds
    • a book you’re writing/wrote
    • characters in your head
    • your DND game
    • etc

But does everyone know everything you post? Not necessarily.

Privacy Options

  • Anonymous
    • You always post with the same number, but they are not tracked back to a profile, just a page that shows all of your posts for that character
  • Obscure – Custom
    • You DO link back to a profile page, but only for the selected characters. And you can set character sets to be invisible to each other.
      • For example, if you post cosplay pics of you as Disney character and you write dark memes about Marvel characters, you can self-define the groups. So, people following your Disney postings don’t see your Marvel postings on the profile page
    • You can share a custom profile with each set, linking external works, etc
  • Public
    • All posts and characters are shown on your profile page

Every character gets a new profile. And then you can add to their MYTH.

Types of MYTHS:

  • Selfies
    • Original fan art!
    • Cosplay pics
  • Diary Entries
    • Write as if you’re the character
  • Memes
    • You know what these are
  • Flash fiction
    • Add to their story

Then, the other people on the site vote.

Voting Options

  • ‘true-cannon’
    • This is for myth additions that ADD to the world the character is in
  • ‘true-multiverse’
    • This is for myth additions that don’t work in the original world but are AWESOME for the character, so could work in an alternate version.
  • ‘cute’
    • Basically ‘liking’, but not feeling that they add to the character
  • ‘vicious rumors’
    • Things that run counter to everything you believe to be true about this character. CLEARLY, made up by the character’s enemies.

For the VERY best posts? No matter the format, they go from the character’s MYTH page to their PROFILE page. And your post-name gets a star next to it, proving that you’ve permanently contributed to that character.

But how do they judge the BEST posts? Some characters have more of a following than others. They do it based on the percentage of active users following that character.

A couple of notes.

NOTE 1: If you are the author (or licensed owner) of the property, you have special privileges and your vote is weighted more than non-authors.

NOTE: There IS a review committee to try and validate the characters. Reports of ‘fake characters’ created to harass real-life people are taken VERY seriously.


Are you on Ch@ractr?

Who are your favorites? Are there any obscure ones you’re just waiting to go viral?

If you’re a public account? Share it and let me follow you!

Happy April 1st!

Using Unsafe Places To Propel Your Characters Forward

Returning to share notes from yet another World Fantasy Con panel: Unsafe Places and Why Characters Go There (see Gender 401 and Writing as Sanctuary, for other panels). The panelists were Ysabeau Wike, Nina K. Hoffman, Rajan Khanma, Joe Haldeman, and Suzy Charnas.

I expected this panel to be about the journey troupe – stories following those who chose to stand up and go, not the ones who are reasonable and stay home. But, the panel itself ended up being more of a discussion on how to use unsafe places to propel the story forward.

What is an Unsafe Place?

Just because a place is safe for one person, doesn’t mean it’s safe for everyone. Places can be unsafe due to the environment itself, or because of the people in the place.

Sometimes? Home is the unsafe place. And it can be unsafe because of external factors, or because of internal ones.

According to Charnas, when fate is against you, no place is safe. And old age is a very unsafe place.

Finding the Conflict That Initiates the Story

When you begin a story, you should make clear what is missing in the main character’s life — or at least, what they THINK is missing.

Often, the strongest stories are about the true thing that is hidden. In those cases, the missing thing identified at the beginning is simply a symptom, not the cause of the conflict.

It’s okay if you don’t know what the true cause is when you start writing the story. Writing can be a search process, a way of finding your way out of the dark. WARNING: If you go into the story with an agenda, stories often come out rather contrived. Strive to avoid that.

Sometimes, the unsafe thing didn’t exist prior to the story’s start. It can be that the world changed and became unsafe for your character.

When The Conflict Is Internal

The internal conflict can either be a mental health issue, or an uncontrolled ability (like magic). It can be an internal need — to control one’s temper, to belong, to be loved. These are the things that make characters relatable and human.

When The Character Doesn’t See It Coming

Betrayal — when the main character thinks they’re safe, but they’re not.

The Joy Of YA

The joy of YA is that kids or teens will defeat problems long after the adults have resigned themselves to a world where the problems are insurmountable.

What Happens Next?

If you need to enhance conflict you can always limit resources. Be it allies, money, magic, or time.

Once you’ve addressed that first conflict — to fix the thing that was making your character unsafe — the main character usually finds something else they need to do — some new issue that’s often the consequence of the first fix.

And that’s it. That’s all the panel had time to discuss. Defining, exploring, and exploiting unsafe places to drive a plot forward.


If you’ve written a story, what was the factor that made your character’s space ‘unsafe’?

If you’re not a writer, share the factor that made a space unsafe for one of your favorite books.

7 Tips For Writing Better Villains

Write The Villain Your Story Deserves

As I’ve discussed before, there’s a difference between an antagonist and a villain. Your story doesn’t need a villain, but if you’re going to have one, you should have a memorable one.

  • Prince Humperdink/Count Rugen
  • The Joker
  • Voldemort
  • Emperor Palpatine

These are the names and the stories that stick with us. And sometimes? We love them anyway.

But how does one create a memorable villain, worthy of one’s story? Here are some tips.

#1 – Avoid under-developed villains

Remember, villains have their own lives, outside of thwarting your protagonist. They need to be 3-dimensional characters with motivations that make sense — even if you disagree with their decisions.

#2 – If you must use a cliche, add a twist

The childhood trauma, the revenge on the government/mob/whatever, the delusion that they’re doing good…make sure you’re not following the formula too closely.

#3 – Make Sure Your Villain Isn’t Underpowered

The protagonist has to work for their win, you don’t want to just hand it to them. There has to be credible belief that the villain might win. Readers appreciate (while they’re cursing you) the anticipation and anxiety they experience during a narrow win, much better than the easily thwarted villain.

#4 – Flawed Villains

Villains are only human. (Most of them) Typically, it’s their own personal flaw that leads to the protagonist’s ability to win the day–or at least a stalemate. Pride is traditional, but something has to get them to lose control of themselves and/or the situation.

NOTE: The flip side to this is that the protagonist should win by CONQUERING their own personal flaw. Maybe not permanently, but facing it and accepting it during the story’s climax.

#5 – Villain Doesn’t Need To Mean Evil

Bad guys don’t have to be evil to oppose the protagonist. Was Mr. Smith evil (at least at first)? They just need to have conflicting goals. The teacher who’s trying to get the class to behave, the parents who just want what’s best for their children, the dedicated priestess of Cthulu who just wants the ancient ones to devour humanity… Oh, wait. Ignore that last one.

In one recent movie that I won’t name for fear of spoilers, the protagonist ends up agreeing with the villain’s argument–albeit, not their methods. Just because you’re the bad guy, doesn’t mean you aren’t right.

#6 – The Villain doesn’t have to be there in person

Often, your protagonist doesn’t even know who they’re up against when they start out on their journey. They just keep running into impediments and/or conflicts without finding the source.

And if they do figure out who’s to blame? Often, it starts with just a little whisper. A rumor.

Voldemort. Fisk. The Serpent Queen.

wpid-img_7917-1024x1536.jpg

#7 – The Villain can be representational

Sometimes, the villain isn’t a distant bad guy. Sometimes, the true bad guy is an organization. And, be it the government, the mob, or some other sort of societal aim, you can use an agent of said organization to embody the villain for your protagonists.

The Operative in Firefly, Ms. Coulter in The Golden Compass, they’re both stand-ins for the true enemy.

 

And there you have it. 7 tips for writing better villains!


***

Good protagonists deserve great villains.

Who’s your favorite villain?

Writer’s Block – Intimidated By The Blank Page

I never thought it would happen to me.

I was arrogant and short-sighted.

I thought writer’s block was censoring out bad writing (you know, like rough drafts), an inability to apply butt-to-seat, or thinking you’re going in the wrong direction but not knowing the right one.

I didn’t think the blank page could scare me until I decided it was time for me to try something new.

Now? I understand.

Searching for a story

For the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize it’s time for me to start something new.

But what? A new story in my old world? A new world? A story in the real world?

And whose story should I tell?

I’ve been rolling settings and motivations around in the back of my brain. Letting ideas flow through my head without conscious attention, enjoying the feel of the endless possibilities.

And tiptoeing around my fears.

The thoughts that intimidate me?

Hand holding a magnifying glass

Photo by fotografierende on Pexels.com

Basically all the good reporter questions:

  • Who are my characters?
  • What do they want? What’s their goal? What stands in their way?
  • When and where is this set? [Either in the real world or on a technological advancement scale.]
  • Why? Why is this my story? Why do the characters want their goal?

Behind these questions, though, is where my real fears lurk.

Maybe what I’ve already written is better than any new world. Maybe the manuscript I’m querying was just a fluke. I know that story better than this vague inkling of an idea, how could I possibly do this new story justice?

Except, of course:

Signpost

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Only Way Out Is Through

I’d contemplated and thought about my first world for years before I wrote it.

This new story? These new characters? This new world? They’re all so durn new to me, they’re basically transparent. I don’t know them yet, how can I even imagine I could tell their tale?

But then I remember, it took me three attempts to figure out my first world, to actually get past that 20,000-word mark and get the full story out of me. Three tries before I committed and followed the story till it was long enough.

You know what happened AFTER I finished writing 131,000 words in my then-brand-new manuscript?

After I finished and looked around is when I began to realize the theme of my story–what it had been working toward the whole time. And every draft, it becomes clearer and stronger and better plotted.

The only way for me to know for sure what story is trying to come out of me is for me to write it.

So now what?

A path through a garden

Photo by icon0.com on Pexels.com

My (Writing) Path Forward

They say every writer works differently, and that sometimes a writer’s method will even change from story-to-story.

My plan right now is to try what worked for me the last couple times.

Writing Plan

  1. Pick a setting
  2. Pick a character
  3. Do a stupidly high-level outline. Something like:
    • ch 1 – inciting incident
    • ch 2 – complain to a friend
    • … ch 19- final battle!
    • ch 20 – denoument
  4. Start at a beginning (likely 2 chapters early while I explore the world and main character) and write until I get stuck
  5. Look at the outline. Either:
    • it helps
    • or
    • I need to rewrite the outline cause I’m going a different direction

When you’re starting a new project, what’s your process?

Do you just wait for a new idea to intrigue you and start writing while it’s fresh?

Or do you decide when you want to write something new and seek out that new idea?

As always, thanks for watching and feel free to subscribe (<<<<) I’ll be back again next Thursday with more writing tips and writerly musings. If there’s something you’d like me to talk about, feel free to email me at morgan.s.hazelwood@gmail.com. See you next week.