As a reader, I’ve always understood how important it is for the characters in a novel to suffer. If the main character doesn’t suffer enough, a novel fails to engage me no matter how much I might like the character or the prose. As I look back at the books I’ve loved at different points in my life — from Little Women to The Lord of the Rings; from Catch-22 to The Remains of the Day; from Charlotte’s Web to Gilead — I see that the suffering that most engages me is internal, at the level of a character’s soul. Whether the plot MacGuffin is the One Ring or a butler’s daily tasks, a novel must present a high stakes battle for the very essence of who a character believes himself to be if it wants to hold my attention.
When I started writing, though, this element eluded me for a long time. I think, for the reasons Louise and Jennifer have pointed out, it’s difficult for many writers to intentionally provoke conflict or suffering. We also want to protect the characters we create and love, almost as though they were our children. When I started the novel that would become The Lost Girls, I knew terrible things awaited the characters I’d created. I even knew what they were. But I couldn’t quite get them there. The book dragged on and on, as my characters faced trivial challenges I told myself were important precursors for what was to come. I was in an MFA program at the time, and toward the end, a teacher who’d watched the novel unfold from my first semester threw up her hands in exasperation. In a written report about me, she said, “After working with Heather off and on for two years, I’ve come to doubt that she has the capacity to give her characters trouble.”
As a writing student, you get used to criticism, from peers and teachers alike. Usually it’s about the craft — too much dialogue; maybe you should try first person; that sort of thing. It gets easier to take because it’s about something you can fix. But this was a charge that went to the essence of who I was as a writer. Worse, my teacher was questioning whether I had it in me to be a writer at all.
My usual response to criticism that reaches such a personal level is to get defensive, then admit the criticism is valid, progress directly to self-loathing, and finally swing back to defiance: I will prove they’re wrong about me! I made this emotional tour quickly in this case, and decided to refute my teacher by writing a story that made my characters do and suffer the worst things I could imagine. So I wrote only the second short story of my life, a piece called “The Moth.” In it a five-year-old girl wakes up in a trailer after spending the night hiding from the sounds of her mother’s boyfriend beating her in the living room. Now the living room is quiet, except for the wails of her baby brother. The girl goes outside and contemplates a broken-winged moth lying in her dirt front yard as her brother, hungry and in a soiled diaper, continues to scream in the trailer. Then she goes back inside, where she sees that her mother is dead and the boyfriend is dying from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. The baby is still screaming, and the little girl places her hand over his mouth and nose and holds it there until he suffocates. Afterward she goes outside and — surprise twist! — instead of killing the moth, carries it to the lone patch of grass and leaves it there.
Believe me, the story was every bit as terrible as that description makes it sound. But I was pleased by how much fun it had been to write, and immensely proud of how miserable I’d made every single character. I showed it to my teacher. Her comment? “Predictable. I knew what was going to happen from the first line.” That was it. But I decided not to let that bother me. After all, the story was only a means to an end; a way to teach myself the fine art of authorial torture.
That’s not all it taught me, though. Oh, it did free up some of my inhibitions around writing about violence and death and the terrible things people can do to one another, and I needed that in order to write the almost-as-bad events of my novel’s climax. But as I thought about why the story was a failure, I realized it was because my character hadn’t been tortured enough internally. Sure, it was shocking to watch a little girl smother her brother. But for the story to be as emotionally haunting as I wanted my writing to be, I needed to show the internal struggle for that little girl’s soul. What made her do it? What was she thinking as she did it? What did she think about it after? None of that was there in the skeletal telling of her tragedy I had managed, and without that, the story was empty in much the same way my novel was empty. My teacher had been right.
So when I turned back to my novel, I started over at the beginning. I reframed every scene as an incremental battle in a war each of my protagonists fights in the privacy of her own heart, a deeply moral conflict with extraordinary repercussions, and one that she will win or lose according to the constraints of her own fortitude and weaknesses. I made sure every event, every scene, and every conversation was a skirmish in that campaign — anything that didn’t feed the conflict maw, I rewrote or cut. It took me four more years to finish the book, but it wasn’t because I was avoiding the horrors that waited at the end any more. Now, I was making sure I earned them.
I’ll never publish “The Moth.” In fact, I’ll probably never read it again (it really is that wretched). But I owe that story, and the teacher who provoked me to write it, an immense debt. In The Lost Girls, many characters’ souls are at stake. A few will be lost. “The Moth” taught me how to imperil them, and how to kill them.
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