Over the past several years, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the fiction industry. I say disturbing because to me, as both an author and a reader, the true story behind every good story arc is what makes the characters tick. And defining a character means putting him or her up against whatever nightmares you can throw at them, and watch how they deal with it. But the trend I’m noticing is more and more authors and script writers shying away from the truly difficult questions – the Emotional Black Moment, or EBM, as I call them.
The truly amazing characters in fiction are defined not by every action in a book, movie, or TV show, but by one single defining moment (or series of moments) of all that time – a moment where they shined not through physical prowess, but through their reactions to their own personal EBM. The more often they encounter these types of EBMs, the more depth and strength a character gains. But an author or writer who is afraid to let his or her characters face these moments in dooming the character to a cardboard existence. Those are the characters no one remembers.
No, I don’t claim to be the next NYT Bestseller, or a Hugo or Pulitzer Prize winner. So, what qualifications do I have to speak on this subject?
I write characters people still, years after reading my books, write to me regularly to tell me how much impact the characters had on them, and how they find themselves re-reading my books because they feel that close to the characters. One young lady put it most succinctly when she described her reaction to the Black Moment for one of the most complex couples I’ve written about, to date. She said “I wanted to go back in time and fix it all. I wanted them to be happy again.”
The characters she was talking about were Trevor Watkins and Jaye Michaels, from SHADOW WALKER. And, I have to admit, writing that book, even knowing what was going to happen, what HAD to happen, I, too, wanted to just erase the past that formed the foundation of their EBM as a couple. I didn’t, of course. They had to go through that. They had to face those demons, and each had to face personal demons, as well, in order for them to grow and become the solid, unshakable couple they needed to be to face the story arc’s Plot Black Moment.
SPOILER ALERT: There’s a HUGE EBM coming for Underground, in HERO’S HOPE… Something that will shake the foundation of the entire team, and especially the core of Tamia and Rick’s relationship. I won’t say anything more on that, right now, but I think that’s enough…
So, how does an author create a character’s EBM? Well, it starts with giving a character a real back story. There needs to be something there to feed into the EBM. Someone who’s lived a life of roses can’t possibly be expected to stare down a Black Moment capable of twisting a jaded reprobate inside out. If you only work with “life of roses” types of characters, be prepared that you’re never going to be able to create a truly impactful EBM… They’re not going to be able to handle it.
Characters who face and succeed in overcoming the most memorable EBMs start out with a past. Maybe, as in Tamia’s case, they have an actual criminal past, a past littered with poor choices involving drugs and violence. Or maybe, as in Trevor’s case, they grew up neglected by an absent, abusive, or negligent parent, witnessed horrors, and experienced shattering traumas in their past, already. And sometimes, their scars run a lot deeper under the surface, as in Telyn Gwndal’s case (from Legends of Tirum), whose belief in her own worthlessness was subtly applied by the society in which she was raised, a bastard child only accepted by her mother’s people because of who her mother was, but never for herself.
These characters each face their own personal EBMs, as well as EBMs that involve their significant others (Tamia faces her first EBM when she’s forced to reject the man she loves for fear of losing him and something else she holds precious – she’s about to face the worst one ever in HERO’S HOPE. Trevor faces his in a very big way when his amnesia lands him smack between a future he wants more than anything, and a past he can’t quite absolve himself of. And Telyn’s about to face her biggest one, yet, in CHILD OF FALLEN WATERS.)
It’s not easy to face a character against an EBM. Our natural instinct, as authors, is to protect and shelter our characters. To treat them with kid gloves, so to speak.
Trust me, you have to banish that instinct forever, if you intend your characters to grow.
Yes, you’ll write painful scenes that leave you drained, crying, and feeling generally like the most miserable traitor on the planet. You’ll want to tear those scenes up and never look at them again. But if you put them aside for a little while, then come back and read them again, you’ll realize what awesome characters you really have, and how much more you respect and love them for what they’ve undergone and overcome.
Now, I’m going to shock you with the next exercise. Kill your character.
I hear the panicked gasps, the thuds of writers dropping like flies.
I’m not talking about publishing these scenes. I’m talking about sitting down and writing a “What if” that kills your protagonist(s). Be brutal, be decisive. Do it.
I can hear the wailing, already. “But whyyyy?”
Because if you can’t kill your character, you most certainly can’t torture them emotionally. If you can’t place them in mortal bodily peril (even if it never makes it into the book), you’ll never be able to rip their souls out and stomp all over them with jackboots.
Some of the hardest scenes I’ve ever written involve death. I’ve literally killed good guys, before (I killed Kelly Blake in TERMINAL HUNTER. I liked her character… but I killed her, anyway). I’ve placed characters in such mortal peril there seemed to be no hope for them (in TAMIA, I dangled Tamia, my title character, so close to that edge I terrified my audience momentarily – I know, because they told me. And in SHADOW WALKER, I put a gun to Jordan Watkins’ head, and a knife to Trevor’s throat. In SPIRIT MAGE, I teetered my hero, Nacaris, on the thin line between life and death, and taunted pushing him over the line. In BURDEN OF PROOF, I nearly drove Chelsea Hanover mad by setting her attacker loose on her yet again, leaving her battered, broken, and in terror). These scenes have been the most difficult to write, but also the most rewarding in watching the characters involved learn from, grow from, and overcome adversity because of them.
Don’t believe me? Read the books… Then come tell me what you think. I dare you.