"My job is to chase him up a tree and throw rocks at him."
-J. Michael Straczynski, on writing Amazing Spider-man
John Scalzi's Redshirts came out this week, and I tore through it in record time. It's pretty brilliant, and I recommend it almost unreservedly.* Without getting too much into spoilers, it does address, on a certain meta-fictional level, the "reality" we imbue characters with, and thus the responsibility writers have to the suffering we then inflict upon them.
Because that's what successful storytelling boils down to:
1. Crafting characters the reader will care about and then
2. Throw rocks at them.
If you're doing your job right, if you can make the reader care about the character, then odds are you care about the character as well. And that can make it a lot harder to do the horrible, awful things that you need to do to them.
But here's the other thing: those horrible things have to have weight. They have to be of meaning other than a cheap tweak to the drama, or an easy motivation for the hero. Life has to be breathed into them for their death to have any meaning.
Our characters have to be real, in a way. Not in a "going to knock on our door and have a word with us about their plot complications" sort of way. But real enough that the readers can easily believe in their life going on beyond what appears on the page.** And real enough that we feel like we can take aim at their head and hurl some trouble at them with everything we've got.
Anything less, and it isn't really worth their time.
*- Almost. I take some issue with Scalzi-- no stranger to the specifics of the behind-the-scenes of movies and television-- repeatedly referring to characters who would clearly be recurring featured characters as "extras". Even to the point where the actors who play said characters say, "I was an extra on that" when they obviously had a speaking role. Actors never downplay their role.
**- Isn't that what fanfic is, at its core? Proof that you've made someone else care as much as you do.
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