Buckets of Cold Water and One Dead Dragon

What shocks and destabilizes you in real life can help you write great fiction.
By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer

I’m puzzled by the puzzled.  As this week winds down and election night shrinks in our rearview mirror, my expectation that politics would gracefully bow and leave the center stage of our national consciousness has been dashed.  People still want to talk about this, and there are many, many folks out there who are dumbfounded – they just can’t wrap their minds around what happened Tuesday night, and they are casting out reels, trying to catch answers and scapegoats.

It’s this astonishment that confounds me.  I mean, I know we all live in our little bubbles, and even those of us who follow the daily news tend to consult a short list of sources; those certain magazines and online portals we regularly visit, a majority of which probably only serve to validate our cemented opinions.  Suffice to say, I am not at all surprised that President Obama was reelected, but I do understand – at least a little bit – why some folks went to bed Tuesday (or woke up Wednesday) astounded that their candidate had not persevered.

After all, I too once went to bed expecting one president and woke up to find another claiming victory.

Life’s sucker punches, left-hooks, and brutal upper cuts can send us spinning into to corners where we lick our wounds and contemplate the folly of ever trying or hoping for anything.

Watching this melodrama play out on the national scene as pundits and prognosticators go through their own version Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief, I’m reminded of the smaller dramas we all face.  Those times when we thought we nailed the job interview, only to receive a solicitous email days later alerting us  another candidate had been chosen.   Those times when you keep telling yourself that your clothes are tighter because you’ve got the settings too high on your laundry machine, only to step on the scale at the doctor’s office and pale at the number it reveals.

And those awful, awful, heartbreaking times when the tests don’t come back negative, that check actually did bounce, or that person you had you eye own confesses they’re in love with your best friend.

Those are life’s sucker punches, left-hooks, and brutal upper cuts.  They send us reeling, spinning into to corners where we lick our wounds and contemplate the folly of ever trying or hoping for anything.  And while some of us are lucky enough to have a positive little voice buried somewhere deep in our psyche repeating a litany of truths and feel-good clichés (“this too shall pass,” “that which does not kill us makes us stronger,” “nothing good comes easy”), in those really dark moments, the optimist and the pessimist are united under the same umbrella of misery.

Your characters shouldn’t get the best of fate and circumstance; they should feel disappointment, failure and unrealized dreams.

You can’t dodge disappointments and failure, and neither should your characters.  Bad things should happen to them.  They may even die.  They may never find true love…or lose true love…or betray true love.  They may spend their whole life searching for a holy grail of their own making, only to find it doesn’t exist.   They may realize that what they thought was “fighting the good fight,” turned out to be nothing more than a Pavlovian response to political rhetoric generated to propel a private agenda.

They may find out that they aren’t the good guy after all.

Don’t forget…even in our most simple fictions, monsters are always lurking.

Yesterday, I highlighted some of Charlie Jane Anders’ tips on sustaining momentum in your work.  In many ways, her suggestions can all be filed under the larger heading of “dashed expectations.”  Start at the end, kill off a character, or write a really bad ending.  These are all ways to shake up your expectations and revive your narrative.  At one point, Anders says “ “If you’re bogged down, chances are you’re making things too pleasant.”

We all sometimes wish we lived in a fairytale.  How great to reside in a gold-plated castle, with happy elves catering to our every whim.  Wouldn’t it be cool to look out your window and see a herd of unicorns or a flying carpet gassed up and ready to go? Or maybe we just crave something a little simpler – a shoe that fits, an apple to revive us and a bowl of porridge that’s “just right.”

Go ahead, indulge in those daydreams – just don’t forget that even in our most simple fictions, monsters are always lurking.  There’s a dragon to be slain or a household of hungry bears to feed.  One of those elves may make golden promises with nasty strings attached (I’m looking at you Rumpelstiltskin!), and there’s always a power hungry witch or wizard to outwit.

In the end, our heroes are only truly heroic if they’ve conquered those demons before saving the princess or finding the pot of gold (there’s a reason, after all, that rainbow’s ends are always guarded by leprechauns).  So don’t pull your punches.  Beat your characters up.  Make bad things happen.  Upend their expectations.  Revel in their confusion and befuddlement when they discover that their cause will not succeed, their champion will not triumph, and their ideals will only be vanquished.

After all, none of us are spared the slings and arrows, why should our characters be treated any differently?

Here’s a scene from the film 500 Days of Summer that perfectly encapsulates dashing your character’s expectations – we’ve all lived some version of this moment.

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Cover photo by Ivan Svatko via Flickr

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