Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Pain of Writing

Kurt Vonnegut has told writers to be sadistic and make bad stuff happen to our characters. I’ve been messing with a character who is rather wealthy, but he is a family man and loves his grandchildren very much. The plot requires him to want a particular claim that a con artist makes to be true. At first, I thought it would be sufficient for him to be distracted from his work by having a missing grandchild, but it didn’t work with the story. The man has four other grandchildren he knows much more about than the missing grandchild, so it came across as if he just wanted the complete set. I needed something better, something stronger.

When I took Vonnegut’s advice, I found the solution in killing off the grandkids. Not just one of the grandkids—all of them. Suddenly, the happiness of a man who invests so much in his grandchildren is invested in the missing grandchild. It also gives a more real quality to the character. As the primary owner of a large company, the man is something of a king and though it is good to be the king, kings tend to be very boring creatures when they are in the height of their glory. It is when they must suffer like the common man that kings get interesting and the deeper the pain they suffer the more interesting they become.

I must say that I have taken no pleasure in the death in the four grandchildren. It’s one of these funny things about writing. With the stoke of a pen, I can give a man one hundred grandchildren or give him none. It is nothing at all to say that the grandchildren never existed, such that they are swallowed up by The Nothing and not even a hole exists, but to take that same pen and say that the children are dead leaves a hole in the author’s heart. The author cries along with the man as he sits at the front of the chapel, staring at those four miniature caskets, knowing that inside are the bodies of four young children who have sat on his lap and not very many days earlier, took him by the hand and said, “I love you Grandpa.” We feel his guilt as he looks down the pew and sees his wife, his sons and daughters, all having lost someone very close to them. He should have been able to protect them, but they slipped right through his fingers. The king, with all of his power, could not hold death at bay.

Here’s a simple rule. If the author feels nothing when he writes, the reader will feel nothing. Good writing makes us want to shout from the mountaintops and wallow in the pit of despair, but it is never bland. We do not have one without the other and we must not be satisfied with what lies between.