In Praise of Wolves and Other Risks

I love my characters--I don’t want bad things to happen to them, but sometimes they do.   They don’t happen because I want to inflict cruelty on my characters; bad things happen because life is cruel, and fiction is trouble, and a character in trouble is what makes my stories move. 

In truth, I’m often sorry for their troubles.  When I started Keeping Safe the Stars, I didn’t know Pride and Nightingale and Baby Star, I didn’t know the avalanche of trouble waiting for those kids.  I only knew their guardian, Old Finn, had driven to the hospital and hadn’t come back home.  And there they were, worrying and waiting, and wondering if something bad had happened to Old Finn.

Of course it had, but I don’t blame myself for that.  After all, I didn’t even know Old Finn, I was meeting this family for the first time, and I was just as scared and saddened as the children when a few short pages later I discovered with them that Old Finn had a serious infection in his brain. Oh no! I thought.  What next? 

On many, many days, the “what next” is what keeps me at the page.  I write in a state of anxious wonder, eager to discover how the trouble will turn out.   Will Old Finn come home soon?  And if he doesn’t, how will they survive?  What about food?  Money?  What happens to three kids in a cabin in the country all alone? 

Perhaps a kinder writer would have let Old Finn stroll home by chapter two—happy, healthy, ready to make breakfast for the kids.  Problem solved, trouble thankfully averted, the Stars could go on to live perfect, peaceful lives.  But I’m already yawning; I can’t continue writing about tranquility—not without some danger up ahead.  Imagine Red Riding Hood delivering the basket to her grandma and the two of them sitting down to supper with a perfect little feast.  Dinner done, Red kisses her good-bye and goes back home.  Would such a happy tale ever hold a reader’s interest?  Let alone become a classic tale?  If we’re honest, we admit we only care about that tale because the wolf promises real risk, and although it might seem cruel to have grandma served for supper, it’s the horror of that story that keeps the reader rapt.   

So Pride and Nightingale and Baby?  As much as I adored those kids, I couldn’t keep them out of trouble.  Like all my cherished characters, they had to save themselves. 


  1. That's the hard part about MG, isn't it? The characters always have to save themselves...


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