Writers need to be mean. Well, hopefully not in their ordinary lives. I try to be a nice person, except when I’m at my desk working on my latest novel. Then I try to be mean.
Being nice to your protagonist makes for a very boring story. We like to see characters face the worst life has to offer. We obviously would never want to be abandoned in the woods by our parents, encounter a zombie horde, or be bullied by a tyrannical cheerleader. But reading about it happening to someone else, we love it.
I believe villains are a protagonist’s best friend.
Okay, “friend” is not the right word. How about: villains are the greatest gift you can give your protagonist? Villains and the conflict they bring to a story force the protagonist to change, force him or her to grow and become better than they ever thought possible. Without Voldemort, Harry would just be another kid at Hogwarts and not the great hero he becomes. And who would Wilbur be without the Zuckerman family wanting to roast him for Thanksgiving? Wilbur would never have discovered how rich friendship and life can be if he hadn’t been scheduled for dinner.
What an interesting lesson for life we absorb by reading about characters thrown figurative (and often literally, as in my novel The Prince Who Fell from the Sky) to the wolves. Conflict forces us to discover our best selves. Through facing challenges and difficulties, we become the heroes of our own lives.
This has guided me in doing some pretty awful stuff to my characters. SPOILER ALERT for those of you who haven’t read my Clockwork Dark trilogy. (I’m of the camp that spoilers actually make you enjoy a story more, so by all means, keep reading whether you’ve read my books or not.)
The meanest I’ve been as an author was to my favorite character. Conker. The son of the legendary John Henry. The gentle giant who is terrified of reptiles but becomes the greatest of the Clockwork Dark heroes. Over the course of the books, I discovered a grand character arc for him, one I’m enormously proud of. By the time readers reach the final book The White City, Conker fears almost nothing. He has died a fiery death already in the first book, only to be resurrected by the siren Jolie at Elodie’s Spring in the second book. By the climax of the trilogy, Conker sets off with the Nine Pound Hammer to destroy the sinister Machine knowing full well he will lose his life in the process.
That’s not the mean part. Having a superhero like Conker makes it hard to throw bigger and more terrifying conflict his way. So when he sets off into the depths of the Machine to make his final stand, who do I send with him? His best friend and the love of his life, Si.
Sometimes I have to struggle to discover the chemistry between characters. Other times, as was the case with Conker and Si, it just comes to life on the page effortlessly. I wish I knew how to make that happen every time. I love Conker and Si individually, but I love them all the more together. Their relationship strikes a deep chord inside me. So when Si forces Conker to let her join him as he faces the destruction of the Machine, it was as heartbreaking for me to write as it was for Conker to experience. The days I spent writing those chapters where they muster the courage to descend into the Machine and mourn all that they are going to lose by winning the final battle was terribly hard to write. I didn’t want this to happen to them! I wanted them to grow old together. But they were the only ones—with their tremendous loyalty and love for one another—who could stop the Gog.
This terrible and heroic final act they had to perform allowed them (and the readers) to discover how deeply Conker and Si felt for one another. In those final moments, Conker and Si are their best selves.
Hopefully we don’t have to die a heroic death to discover that. Great stories allow this potential for self-discovery, this opportunity to reflect on who we want to be. And our lives are richer for having read about characters facing the worst life has to offer.
Thanks to the meanness of writers.