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Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Yesterday's Dreams, Author

Guest Blogger - Jon Gibbs - An Englishman in New Jersey

What did they ever do to you? – Why all good writers are sadists.


As writers we love our characters, but if you think about it, they most likely don’t feel the same way about us.


Can you imagine what the people who only exist between the covers of a book would say if they ever met their author? 


If Paul Sheldon (the unfortunate writer in Misery) ever came a-calling, Stephen King had better hide his sledgehammer. Otherwise it might be a case of “Off with those slippers, Stevie. Let’s see how you bloody like it!


What about poor old Hercule Poirot? Forced into a lifetime of self-preening and murder solving.  Sure he’s famous, but what kind of a social life can he have? Once word gets out that people drop dead in mysterious circumstances whenever you’re around, I don’t imagine too many party invitations get sent your way. 


Then we have Elizabeth Bennet and chick-lit’s original Mr. Tall-Dark-And-Broody. I know she gets Mr. Darcy in the end, but she has to wonder why Jane Austen didn’t just write Pride & Prejudice as flash fiction and be done with it. 


It would have been so much easier for everyone if she’d written the Darcy/Bennet romance as a 100-word drabble called Love at First Sight, in which Elizabeth summons Darcy from across the dance floor and tells him, “Grab your coat, mate. You’ve pulled”. Instead, rather than going straight from hello to the happily ever after, the first words she hears from him are. “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” – hardly the most promising start to a relationship.


Having said all that, if Elizabeth Bennet, Poirot, or any other literary creation were here now, we could tell them why their authors made things so difficult.


It’s because they wanted them to suffer, right? In fact, the more those poor folks got put through the wringer, the better we, as readers, liked it. 


Any kid who’s ever watched a Disney movie knows you can’t have a happy ending without an unhappy beforehand, so for writers, it’s not a question of whether or not we should put our characters’ feet to the fire, it’s more about whether we let them off with singed sneakers or burn the skin right off their toes.


Of course, the suffering doesn’t have to be physical, or even personal, and as a reader I (almost) always want to see the main characters come out on top in the end, but only after they’ve made impossible choices, faced desperate situations, confronted their worst nightmares, and generally struggled for about as long as it takes to get from the opening line to the final page.



I don’t know about you, but I’ve done some pretty awful things to my guys. 


In my current WIP, my ‘hero’, a twenty-something scientist with zero self-confidence and all the manly characteristics of a wet flannel, gets the brain patterns of a bad-tempered CIA veteran stuck in his head. 


Before he knows what’s happening he’s had his life’s work stolen; been tazered from the inside out; suspected of attempted murder; humiliated; drugged; blown up; kidnapped; suspected of treason; humiliated again; bullied; beaten up, and had someone try to cut out his left eye, all in the first 150 pages – after which his fortunes take a definite turn for the worse.  


Mean as I am to my guys, I also envy them a little. After all, they get to visit places I’ve never seen, say things I never get to say, do things I’ll never get to do. Not that I’d want to swap places. After all, they go through more trouble and heartache than I could ever cope with – at least, they have if I’ve done my job right.


How about you? Would the people in your stories want to shake you by the hand or by the throat? 


What’s the worst thing you’ve done to one of your characters?



About Jon Gibbs:

Some of you already know Jon from his blog on Live Journal, An Englishman in New Jersey [http://jongibbs.livejournal.com]. Having met him in person, I can confirm that the claim he makes in his LJ profile is 100% true – He doesn’t look at all like Brad Pitt. On the other hand if Elmer Fudd had an older cousin…


Apparently, he left school at the age of sixteen after spending much of his time standing in the corner being told, “No, no, Gibbs. Face the class. We must all learn to suffer.”


He says he writes books (none of which have been published yet, so we’ll just have to take his word for that), and some short stories (mostly flash fiction), of which he has sold only one. Oh, and he also founded that New Jersey Authors’ Network [www.njauthorsnetwork.com] thing, of which I’m a proud member.


I sold a character out to the devil. That was perhaps my proudest moment...

Or maybe it was cutting that other dude open with the garden shears.

Hard to pick.

-- JF
I like the selling out to the devil idea, but the garden shears wins it for me.

Thanks for sharing :)
I had a character who was sentenced to 400 years in prison, and because live extension techniques had just come on line he had to serve them all. Very different from today when a 400 year sentence is meaningless. Of course, the prison system had to save money, so they stumped him (cut off his arms and legs, sewed his mouth shut with platinum wire and had feeding and waste tubes put into his body) and put him in a matrix gel who he wouldn't rot.

That was probably the worst thing I've ever done to a character.
Hi Mark, thanks for stopping by :)

That sounds like a tough system. What happened if someone was later found innocent?
Well, well, Mr. Gibbs--this is a side to you I've never seen. Behind that nice, intelligent, thoughtful persona lies a madman waiting to wreak havoc upon the unsuspecting, whether they be fictional characters or readers. My heart's all a-flutter!


As always, great blog post. Reading your posts always seem more like reading articles in high-quality writer mags. This is no exception. (Have I saved myself a beheading in one of your stories yet?) Seriously, you know my admiration knows no bounds.

I've done terrible, terrible things to my characters, mostly of the psychological kind. I did, however, invent a torture that worked out nicely. The victim being interogated wouldn't talk, you see, so I had to use some drastic measures. The Inquisitor flayed his leg from hip to ankle, put metal burrs against the muscle and sewed him back up, then stuck him back in his cell to think about his answers for a while. My hero, being MY hero, escaped and nearly died of septicemia, but all's well in the end. :)
Okay...now I don't feel so bad. I'm not nearly so cruel as that ;)
Okay, it's a toss-up for me.

In my novel I have a basically decent guy possessed by an ancient evil god, and have him mutilate someone with his teeth.

In a short story I force a character to become a cyborg dependent on plasma to survive. He loses his humanity to the process, finds it again, then loses it worse when I put him in a situation where the only plasma source is a living human being and Jean-Paul is conditioned to do whatever he must to protect and preserve the company's investment (ie. Himself).
I do love those impossible choices. They're much more fun to read about :)
Nice article! And so true.

Worst thing? Had her attacked in a way that made her lose her power, which made her family lose their immortality, which meant that the human race, which they were protecting from supernatural attack, would be throw back into the dark ages...and without her powers, she had no guidence or ability to make judgments (she thought).

That's probaby the worst.

Edited at 2009-09-24 01:28 pm (UTC)
It beats the heck out of the time I had someone hide my guy's favorite toothbrush ;)

Did the human race actually revert back to the Dark Ages before she saved the day, as it were?
Perhaps the roughest one was the main character who hid at the top of the stairs while her family was murdered by robbers, then the robbers burned down the house around her. Her life was never exactly easy ever after that either, but that's probably the worst I've done to date.
Ooh I like that one, guilt AND suffering. An excellent combination!

Thanks, Ed :)
Aside from making them appear in one of my crappy stories? Is there a worse fate? ;)

One of my prouder moments was locking a wayward hitchhiker into an old iron safe to suffocate, while the protagonist listened to her scratching on the inside of the door, unable to get her out before her oxygen ran out.

'...Aside from making them appear in one of my crappy stories?...'

Good one. It made me lol, out loud :)

I like that safe idea. It gives you a built-in ticking clock.
A good portion of my characters would have no patience with me; I'd bore them silly. But with a character whose perspectives and problems are very close to mine, I feel much more confident about an imagined meeting. We'd be like, yeah, I know, and they make us do this, and then what're we supposed to do, and then ...yeah, same reaction!

Thanks for letting us in on yours a bit--I love when friendly, good-hearted-type authors reveal their work and we find murder, torture, treason, and potential eye removal.
Lol, it's not that I set out to hurt them, it's just so much fun :)
Okay, this is from several different books:

1) he's blown up in explosion (only POV character I ever killed off)
2) he's mentally tortured by a mage
3) she is stranded alone in alternate dimension where you feel fear but not hunger or thirst
4) he is forced to burn himself with white hot steel rod
5) she is sold to total strangers by her father
6) his 8-year-old son is kidnapped after protag assures his wife it's safe to let the boy visit relatives (I think this one is actually crueler than any physical torture)

They're all good, but if I had to pick just one, I'd go with #6.

Thanks for sharing, Karen :)
One of them had a romantic afternoon with the woman of his dreams interrupted by a Viking invasion, and then he was subsequently (due to a slight misunderstanding)adopted by the northeners and taken for a nice relaxing trip to other villages.

Or perhaps there was the time when the main character in my novel found out that she wasn't actually real...

Great post, BTW.
Thanks, Gustavo. Sadly, all too many people got taken on the Danish, Magical Mystery Tour back in the day.

Finding out you aren't real. That's gotta be upsetting. What did she do?
I've had my protagonist's girlfriend be killed by his other girlfriend while they were having sex. In a rage, he stabs the other girlfriend to death. Before she dies, she shoots him as well, and also informs him that she's pregnant with his child. Although the wound is not necessarily fatal, he crawls off home in order to avoid medical treatment. He hopes that the police will find his body before his kid returns from a weekend trip.

That's the second-worst thing I did to that character.

After writing the scene with the worst thing that I did with this character, I ended up putting the story away. It was a year before I could bear to look at it again.

I think that the worst thing you can "do to" a character is not having something done to them by external forces, but having your character do something that s/he knows is reprehensible.

Edited at 2009-09-25 04:06 am (UTC)
I agree, though I think it works even better if the character is put in a situation where they must choose to do it :)
Hi Danielle,

I just wanted to thank you for having me over to post on your blog. I had a lot of fun. I hope you'll do me the honor of guest-posting over on my journal soon.

Thanks also, to everyone who took the time to read and/or comment. Even though I now realize a lot of you are mean, mean people, I very much appreciate your input :)

Take care,

You're welcome. Thanks for sharing! This was a very enjoyable blog-day :) Signs of good things to come, I hope :) Taking a page from your book and including questions at the end of all my posts from now on!

As for guest-blogging...you bet! Give me a little time, though...drowning a little right now.
Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Yesterday's Dreams, Author

December 2014



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