Q&A: Detachment

A different sort of writing question. How to detach yourself from a character so you don’t feel awful you put them through the worst things a human being can go through? In one of my fics, I’m writing a person going through a lot of psychological torment. And it makes me feel bad, but I know I have to keep pushing it in order for the story to have the meat it needs. But it also means I can only write for so long before I break down. Help?

There’s a couple things to remember.

First: Your characters aren’t real people. Depending on where you are as a writer, this may sound glibly obvious, or disrespectful to your work, so let’s unpack this a little bit.

Your characters are simulacra. They experience their existence from their perspective. They do not exist with full knowledge of their nature as fictional constructs.

Somewhat obviously, you can’t always say how a real person would react to a scenario, so you’re left to make your best guess. Usually, the best advice here is to study up on who your character would be, and work to understand how someone with their background would approach their situation.

At this point it’s very important to remember that characters are (usually) not omnipotent. They only have access to the information they can get legitimately. Either from talking to each other, or from examining and studying their environment. Characters should never have a full picture of the world they live in, only the pieces they’ve worked out for themselves. You don’t, always, need to show characters passing information back and forth, but this can be a very important tool to keep track of what they know.

Within all of this there should be a spark of a person floating around. An individual with needs, goals, dreams, convictions, experiences, fears, and flaws. (Or, really, any other itemized list of how you want to define a person.) That person lives in the world you created. They don’t have access to you, nor what you know.

How much autonomy you give them is up to you. Same with how strict you are about regulating their world. These are stylistic choices that will affect the tone of your work. But, ultimately, it’s very important to remember your characters are artificial constructs designed to present a convincing illusion of a person, rather than the genuine article.

How do you keep enough detachment? By remembering this is an illusion you’ve created. As with all illusions, it’s far more important that this plays properly for the audience, even if it’s held together with duct tape and rage on your side from your position.

Let your characters take care of themselves, with the information they have, and the situations they’re in. They don’t need you to pull your punches. To an extent, they depend on that to sell the illusion you’re creating. Put another way, it’s okay to be cruel if the situation warrants it; you can trust your character to pull through. They’re probably a hell of a lot tougher than you’re giving them credit for.

Second: Your job is not to advocate for your character. I’ll go out on a limb and say this one’s not quite as obvious; you’re here to tell a story. Your character’s dreams are relevant to them. They can work towards their goals, and a general desire not to die horrifically. But, that is their problem, not yours.

Stories about conflict work off a simple concept: two or more sides come together, they challenge each other in some way, and whoever manages to achieve their goals, comes out on top.

I’m being very abstract here. This description could cover anything from a story about a parent dealing with their child coming out, to a thriller with a rogue nuclear device in a major metropolitan area. But, managing the conflicts is your job. You may be hoping a specific character wins, but you want everyone participating as appropriate.

Within this context, it’s important that your antagonists have a reasonable, plausible, path to victory. They need to have objectives, and a way to actually achieve them. They are just as much your responsibility as your protagonist(s).

Either group may lack information about what their path to victory is, and/or how to achieve it. In situations like this, their first goal needs to be obtaining that information, which can be a major portion of the story.

Remember what I said about your characters on the last point? Yeah, this applies to everyone in your story. How do you avoid playing a favorite? One way is to have lots of favorites working against one another. This is your job as a writer: playing all of your creations against each other in order to tell a compelling story.

This isn’t always true, but if your antagonist is uninteresting to you, chances are your audience will feel the same. You want a foe that excites and entertains you. Tinker with them or rework them until they really engage you. Then you will have two favorites, and it will help you avoid simply rooting for the hero.

Third: You don’t measure a hero by their merits; you measure them by the adversity they overcome. The more you beat them down, the stronger they come out the other side.

Remember that line from Nietzsche that I slapped around last week? “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” It’s not entirely true. Severe injuries can result in permanent impairment. Blows which shatter your psyche or your will to go on are not empowering. But, a character who has been abused and battered can come back more forcefully, with stronger convictions, and sometimes, a little smarter for what they’ve been through.

Slapping your characters around can be a sign to them that, maybe, it’s time for them to take a different approach. Every defeat and mistake can serve as a learning experience, if you’ll let it. Ironically, once you’re in the right mindset, it can be far more difficult to avoid being too destructive. Hurt them, let them learn, don’t kill them (even if that death is in their psyche.)

At this point, we’re back to the previous point; your job, is to orchestrate the story as a whole, not simply cheer for one character.

Never be afraid of being a bit too rough. If they break, curl up in a corner, and die, then you know you’ve gone too far, and it might be time to go back and tone it down a bit. This is one of the virtues of drafting, you can go back and fix your mistakes later. If you’re willing, you can let it ride. What happens when you kill the hero? The story isn’t over, and the supporting cast is still there, doing their part. What kind of a course to you chart through that aftermath?

Finally: Remember it’s okay for a character to leave empty handed. Just because they have dreams doesn’t mean they need to realize them. Granted, this will depend heavily on the kind of story you’re trying to tell, but there is nothing inherently wrong with a character who’s holding on to a false or dying hope, because it’s the only thing keeping them together. Victories can be Pyrrhic. Endings can be bittersweet. Just because your character wants something, doesn’t mean you need to give it to them.

Sometimes, by their natures, characters cannot get what they want. It’s baked into their very nature. Sometimes people look for goals they think will make them happy but it’s not what they’re actually missing, so even if they do get that think, the result will be hollow. Yes, people, not just characters. Depending on who your characters are, there may not be any possible happy ending. Knowing this in advance can go a long way towards having an idea of where your they will end up.

No matter how you twist it, at least one of your characters will come out on top. It might not be who you expected, but so long as someone wins, it’ll be one of yours. Remember, your characters only exist for the story. You might revive and use them in the future, but their only life is within the confines you create. Within that context, it’s okay to run them over the coals with a clear conscience. Handling that is, quite literally, their problem, not yours.

You’re the writer, not a participant in the narrative. Your job is to make sure all the pieces interact, adjudicate your characters bouncing off one another, and to keep track of the wreckage they leave behind. Your job is to tell their stories, not to make friends with them.

-Starke

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