The secrets behind the practice of good writing: Go on, be a sadist

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, The secrets behind the practice of good writing, Tips for Writers

26-october-2016As a novelist, you shouldn’t be too kind.

We all know Kurt Vonnegut’s exhortation to put your characters through hell, but do we always heed it where our own beloved characters are concerned?

I thought of this recently when chatting with one of our mentoring participants. He knows the theory: test the mettle of your characters by putting your characters into worse and worse situations.

But he had his character travel through the country, pursued by those who wished him ill. His character found a resting place, and it was as safe as promised. He left in the morning, just before the people who might have raised the alarm had he not left in time.

It occurred to me that we tend to fall in love with our characters. We want them to be safe, and happy. We worry for them. It’s natural empathy.

But putting them through hell tests them. We see what they’re made of. Can they think of a solution if their safe resting place turns out to be not safe at all, or if people arrive unexpectedly. Or (if your story isn’t action driven), if the lover they trust above all others betrays them.

Not only that, but what will all this do to their personalities? Do they turn brave or cowardly? Do they turn cruel and think of revenge? Will their moral code stand the test you’ve set them?

When you put your characters through the greatest tests of their lives, you are putting your readers through them too. Your readers experience these events along with your characters, and their empathy causes them to feel the same pain.

That’s why we read. Reading is a rehearsal for life. It allows us to test our own hypothetical mettle by imagining how we would deal with the same situation. We need you to be cruel. It’s what keeps us reading.

So, I know it’s hard. You love them and care about them. But the best thing you can do for them (and us) is to show no mercy. Go on, be a sadist.

***

My 2016 blogs will continue to try to uncover the secrets behind the practice of good writing.

Please join the discussion and if you have discovered something that has made a great difference to some aspect of your writing, please send it to me. I’ll share it on the blog and we can discuss it.

Each blog will deal with a secret that may have occurred to me through reading or mentoring other people’s work. Or they may  be lessons hard learnt through five of my own books. Many will be applicable to fiction and non-fiction, while some might refer to one or the other.  When you tackle a piece of writing, you always have a vision of the perfect work it will be. As you write, you become increasingly aware of how it falls short of the perfection you wish for it. Writing (and rewriting) is the process of trying to bring it as close as you possibly can to that vision. Here, I will try to share those little gems which should bring all our writing one step closer to the perfect piece of writing – one blog at a time. Some might tackle the process of writing or how to keep writing, while some will look at language, characterisation or story. Some might be more general, while others will be very specific. But each will be a piece of advice that I believe in and that I hope will help make us all into better writers.

Jo-Anne Richards
Jo-Anne Richards is an internationally published novelist with a PhD in Creative Writing from Wits University. Her first novel, The Innocence of Roast Chicken, was originally published by Headline Review in the UK, and has recently been rereleased as one of the prestigious Picador Africa Classics collection. She ran the Honours programme in Journalism & Media Studies at Wits University for fifteen years.
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