Terrible Tips Tuesday: God Complex
For this final edition of Terrible Tips Tuesday, I’m going to engage in the kind of blasphemy that a couple hundred years ago would have gotten me burned at the stake or crushed by rocks.
One of the existential questions people often ask is, “Why does bad stuff happen to good people?” Where the blasphemy comes in is that I’m here to tell you that writers have more insight into this question than your local priest, rabbi, imam, or guru on a mountaintop.
This is because as writers, we play God all the time. Every story we write is our own world that operates by our own rules. We pick and choose who lives and who dies. We decide who gets the girl and rides off into the sunset and who is bitterly disappointed. We have little Timmy get hit by the car and fall into a coma and we decide if or when he’ll ever wake up and what kind of permanent damage he suffers.
Usually this is fun. Sometimes it’s not. I’ve been writing a series of superhero stories recently that focus on a very nice girl named Emma Earl. Emma isn’t just nice, she’s practically a freaking saint. She doesn’t drink or smoke or swear or lie and she’s extremely sensitive to hurting anyone’s feelings. That’s why she’s the one who finds the suit of magic armor that allows her to become a superhero known as the Scarlet Knight.
As we’re into the sixth story now, the question that keeps coming up is: why do I keep picking on this poor girl? I mean if she were a real person I would freaking love her and want to marry her and yet in this stories I’m always putting her through the wringer. I’ve had her beaten up and stabbed numerous times. At the end of one story I actually had her die. I forced her to give up the man she loves and later alienated her best friend. I made her lose her dream job at the museum. Recently I hooked her up with a dude who lives in the sewers and got her knocked up. And on Sunday I wrote a scene where she’s beaten to a pulp and crippled. All of that in addition to before page one of book one I traumatized her by murdering her parents and giving her aunt Alzheimer’s.
Why the hell do I do all these things to someone who obviously doesn’t deserve it? Is it because I’m a sadistic bastard? Well, a little bit, but there are two better reasons. The first answer is the one your priest would give you when he’d say, “It’s God’s Plan.” As I’ve written about a few times, the point of storytelling is that you move around the characters and events to ultimately make some kind of statement. So all this bad stuff that happens to poor Emma Earl is because I’m trying to send you the reader a message about perseverance, courage, and all that good stuff.
OK, fine, but do I really need a whole 350-page novel to tell you that? And do I really need to make all of that bad shit happen to Emma in order to say it? I mean, couldn’t I just have her find the armor, POW! beat up some bad guys, make out with her man, and call it a day.
Well sure I could, but here’s the most important thing: that would be BORING! The old adage from ancient Greek times is that conflict is the source of drama. In English classes we talk about Man vs. Man, Man vs. Self, Man vs. Nature, and all that crap. The gist of it is that the harder the road the hero walks, the more fun it is for you and me the reader. That’s why poor Emma Earl has to suffer. And it’s also why Superman had his home planet blow up, Batman had his parents killed, and why Ross and Rachel never could seem to stay together more than five minutes on Friends. The latter is actually a frequently used device in TV plots, wherein if the main guy finally gets the girl he’s been pining after (or vice versa) they’ll break up about two episodes later. Why? Because TV writers are lazy for one thing and for another it’s interesting! Or just think of soap operas. Why are they always cheating and sleeping around? Because that’s what people want to see!
Basically, Happily Ever After is only good for the end of fairy tales. If you want to make your story interesting, then you have to be willing to put your hero through the wringer, no matter how much you love her or him. That’s not always going to be fun, but it’s necessary. And since you’re the God of your hero’s world, then you know if there’s a Happily Ever After waiting for her or him at the end.
Does the actual universe work that way? I don’t know; that’s way too metaphysical for me, man.
But speaking of, Thursday is the final entry with some words of bullshit, er, wisdom to live by.