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The Breaking Point...and Beyond

This time's blog chain question was asked by Leah Clifford, who recently accepted representation for her novel Reapers!  Kate shared her take on the topic in the post before mine, and Michelle will explore her dark side in the next post. Leah's challenge was:

Show me your dark side...What do you do to amp up the conflict?  What pins do you stick in the little voodoo dolls? How do you torture your characters???  

Have you ever seen the TV show nip/tuck?  It's unusual show, because you're watching along, and they imply that something really edgy is going to happen.  A main character is feeling kind of turned on by the super-expensive sex doll modeled after his business partner's ex-girlfriend. A (male) main character is in danger of being another man. A patient character has threatened to perform her own mastectomy.  Most writers would turn away, getting their characters out just in the nick of time. Of the few writers who decided to go all the way, most of them would never show the actual event. In nip/tuck, they Go There.  All the way.  And they show all of it. The sex with the doll. The rape. The woman who does the mastectomy on herself with an electric carving knife in the doctors' waiting room. And then they show the fallout. These characters never get a break.

Going There is what intrigues me.  Not what happens when the hero gets there in the nick of time, but when the worst the hero can possibly imagine happens. And then sometimes...that's not all. Next come a few things the hero couldn't possibly have imagined in his worst nightmares.  And then, of course, there's the fallout.  Shattered relationships. Grief. Nightmares. Depression. Post-traumatic stress disorder.  Suicidality. And the humiliation of having had all those reactions in front of other people.

Maybe it's having been on the frontlines and counseled people who have had things worse than they could ever imagine happen to them. Maybe it's just having lived through a few things in my own life.  But I Go There in my fiction.  A lot.

I don't see it as torturing my characters. I see it like this: Life can really, truly be that ugly.  Human beings do horrible things to other human beings, and sometimes they even do them intentionally.  I don't pretend otherwise when I tell a story.

One of the best ways to learn about the dark side of life is to be willing to be open, and to listen. Everyone has suffered indignities, and some have suffered horrors.  But those things are invisible unless you're open and willing to other people, including the really nasty, awful bits.  Like Mary said, the people who seem the most benign are often the ones who hide the most.  Because they've had to learn to seem benign to be accepted by a world too horrified by the realities of their lives.

The same thing is true with your characters.  You have to be willing to really listen to them, and if they have to Go There, you need to be brave enough to go with them.  Carl Jung talked about how we all have a dark side to our personalities, but only a few of us are willing to confront that side and integrate it into the Self.  I've always believed that part of what makes Stephen King so great is that he faces his own shadow and then writes about what he finds.

So how do you do that , avoid giving in to the urge to look away from the dark stuff?

Years ago, when I was learning to write, I came across an article that said the most important word in your story is NO. Whatever your character wants or needs, the answer must always be NO.  Once in a while, it may seem that the character is getting a yes, but in reality that yes must ultimately drive them farther from what they want or need. I believe strongly in the NO.  It always leads to a better story.

Have you ever seen Cool Hand Luke?  No matter how many times they drag Luke back to the chain gang, he always takes off again. He can't seem to help it. After the second time he escapes, the boss makes him dig a trench.  Then fill the trench.  Then dig the trench.  Then fill the trench. Over and over and over, until Luke finally breaks down, half dead, and begs to be allowed to stop.  But they keep pushing him. The other inmates turn away, horrified by what's left of this free spirit they all admired.

Still, later in the film, Luke escapes again, this time with another inmate.  The friend laughs, crowing that Luke's groveling was so convincing that "They didn't know you was foolin!"  And Luke says "Foolin, huh? You can't fool them about somethin like that.  They broke me."

So forget a little spilled milk, a few broken eggs. For me the real question is...what does it take to break your character, and what happens to him after he's broken?


  1. Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...
    Oh, my gosh. I LOVE Cool Hand Luke. I remember crying the first time I saw the ditch scene. Amazing.

    Fabulous post, Carolyn.

    Where in the world did you take/find the angel picture. It looks like the ones in the graveyards in Austria. So beautiful.
    Elana Johnson said...
    Another one to print. I especially like the NO part. I've gotta learn to say NO.
    Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...
    Good post! Jack Bickham says the same thing about saying "No" (or "Yes, but...") in his book Scene and Structure. It's part of the Writer's Digest series.

    Verification word: "antinged." Sounds like you're removing color from something, perhaps an antigen. ;)
    Unknown said...
    Whatever your character wants, the answer should always be no...

    Great reminder. It's the broken characters who are inevitably the most memorable.
    Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...
    Elana -- I still have the article, I will get you a copy. I'm also going to check out Scene and Structure, I think I have that on my shelf. It may have been Bickham who wrote the article in the first place -- I found it in WD magazine years and years ago.

    As for Luke...after he finally is allowed to walk away from the ditch, he walks back into the dormitory, where everyone turns away from him, leaving him crying and alone. Talk about adding insult to injury...knowing that everyone has not only seen you break, but can't even look you in the eye because they're so horrified by it...

    Great movie, BTW, for anyone who hasn't seen it. I haven't given away the ending!
    Kate Karyus Quinn said...
    Hmmm... I may have to rent Cool Hand Luke, I've never seen it but the way you describe those two scenes gives me chills.
    Annie Louden said...
    Great post! And I've enjoyed following the blog chain. I don't torture my characters, or say no to them, nearly enough, and I think that's why I have such a hard time with plot.

    Charles Baxter is one of my favorite short story writers, and while I wouldn't necessarily say he tortures his characters, he does like to make them squirm and put them in awkward situations. I also love Lorrie Moore for her sad, wry characters.

    Carolyn, I want to read one of your novels now more than ever, after reading this post.
    Kathryn Hupp-Harris said...
    Cool Hand Luke? That's a great flick.

    What we've got here is . . . failure to communicate. . .some men you just can't reach

    (Actually, that's most men IMHO)


    It took me the longest time to learn the part about saying "No" in writing fiction because as a reporter, I'm so used to saying YES from the getgo.

    I think I might have that art down now, though. One of my crit partners told me this morning that I really tortured my heroine in the first 40 pages.

    I'll take that as a compliment.

    Great post!
    Michelle McLean said...
    Ahh, another awesome post I must follow....... ;)

    I'd love a copy of that article as well! I don't say no to my characters nearly enough. In fact, in the early versions of my first novel, I never said no to my characters, because I get so frustrated when I read books like that. The guy got the girl right up front, they jumped into bed straight off and were totally in love the whole time - there were bad guys after them, of course, but as a couple, they got everything they wanted. And it didn't go too far. So I started saying no and have had a lot more success....although I know that I need to say No even more for it to actually make it anywhere :)

    Great post!!! And gorgeous picture! Where did you get it?

    (my word is "pigam" ..... considering the fact that I've been eating M&Ms all day, using the fact that I was too busy painting to make actual food as an excuse - that just makes me want to start singing "Oh, I am a pig, I am I am, I am a pigam I am" :D
    Anonymous said...
    What a wonderful post, Carolyn. I think the thing that drives me the craziest when I read a story is when the author CAN'T go there - no matter how loudly the characters may want to.

    Thank you for reminding us how to do it!!!
    TerriRainer said...
    I never thought about telling my characters "No". Maybe I should, but so often they do such stupid things, that you can see the train wreck a comin' before it gets there, so I just watch and write.

    Amazing post!
    :) Terri
    Anonymous said...
    Another great post! Am going to have to rent cool Hand Luke...
    H. L. Dyer said...
    I think you win for best answer to this question.

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