Hello readers! Welcome to another Monday! I know for many Monday is seen as a bit of a drag, being the start of the workweek and all that, but for me? Well, I always get to look forward to them because it means another Being a Better Writer post! And I kind of hope that in a way, a lot of you look forward to, if nothing else, at least this part of Monday because of BaBW.
Really quick, I do have some nice news, too, which also helps. Hunter/Hunted? Going into Beta. Look for a cover and a release date soon, fans! And Jungle? In Alpha, with a release planned for end of summer/early fall depending on the speed of editing. All I’ll say on that one is … dang. Rereading it and polishing it up, I’d forgotten how tense it got!
While I’m on the subject, Colony picked up two more Five-star reviews over the weekend across Goodreads and Amazon! Woo-hoo! One step closer to global domination!
Okay, got the news out of my system. So let’s talk about improving your writing. “Taking the Lumps?” What does that mean?
Well … interestingly enough, this is kind of, in a way, a related follow-up post to an incredibly popular BaBW post from two weeks ago on the Strong Female Protagonist. Not 100%, but … well, you’ll understand in a moment.
See, what inspired this post was a news article I read elsewhere on the internet. Well … read half of it. I started skimming when it got foolish, and then didn’t finish. Why? Because … it was bad. Terrible, actually.
I’ll give you the rundown. And, fair warning, it’s a bit of a socially charged article, which was the root of part of the overall problem with it. Just go with me for a moment.
The article was in effect a complaint piece. And half rage. And what it was complaining out—or at least, thought it was complaining about—was misogyny in a story series the author’s article followed.
Long story short, this was one of those “We want strong female characters articles” (and yes, this is putting it very simply and bluntly). The author really, really wanted all the male characters of this series stripped out and replaced by women characters.
Pitchforks down. Though that is a topic, really, all in and of itself, it’s not one we’re discussing today. Because in this case, they’d gotten their wish. The male characters had been sidelined, the female characters were the new leads … and the article writer was upset and offended.
Why? Because the female characters were suffering losses, injury, and even death, just as the male team had. And as the article writer felt, that was ‘misogynistic and sexist.’
Yeah, that’s why I stopped reading. It was a pretty dumb article. However hyperbolic it was, though, it was something that got me thinking, because the mentality behind it isn’t something that’s unusual or new. In fact, it’s been around for a long time. Regardless of the reasons we’re beholden to a set of characters, from gender to backstory to … well, any number of things that make a character appealing to us, there’s a constant we should never forget.
Struggle means risk. And risk can—and should—mean loss.
That’s what the writer of this article had completely missed, personally. They wanted this all-female team to walk headfirst into dangerous situations, as was par for the story, but the moment any wound was received or any character struggled … they got upset.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, this post isn’t going to dive into the whole “misogynistic and sexist” social-political angle behind that because while this article was a great illustration of today’s topic, that angle is not the end-all be-all. It’s a good example of someone not wanting to let characters take their lumps because of some attachment to them or view of them, but it’s by far and away not the only way this sort of mentality shows up. Just a really good example of it.
The article author was really upset that these characters suffered in pursuit of their goals. That they acquired injuries. That one of them even died.
But … here’s the thing they didn’t want to understand: If a writer wants their story to be real, they need to give the characters’ actions real consequences. Even if they love those characters.
Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about melodrama. I’m not talking about punching up small events so that they become large, overblown ones. No, I’m talking about letting our characters take their lumps. Face consequences of their behavior, choices, and actions. Even when yes, that means that they suffer, fail, are wounded, make things worse, or even … die.
That’s simply … part of life. And while yes, our characters may be fantastical, or live in worlds we can only envision, we still need to make them human, make them relatable to the audience. And that means despite their skill, and their talents, they need to go through that try-fail cycle. And for that to happen, they need to fail sometimes … even when they succeed. They need to take their hits. Their lumps.
Okay, so let’s back up for a moment, before anything gets supercharged. In essence, I’m saying that our characters should not only face trials and struggles, and succeed or fail, but that whether or not they succeed or fail, there should be a … well, let’s call it a “cost.” Every time.
Why? Because that’s how life works. For example, one could easily look at Colony in my own life and say “Well, that’s a success. It made a lot of money, and keeps making you money. You succeeded.”
And yes, that’s true. Colony has been one of my strongest successes to date. But … it didn’t come without cost. Hundreds of hours were poured into it. Social events were skipped. I remember days where I would wake up at 9 AM and sit down at my computer, editing while eating breakfast. I skipped meals. I’d call it a day around 10 PM sometimes … but sometimes even later. Go to bed, get up the next morning, and do it again.
Did I succeed? Of course I did. No one would call Colony a failure. But at the same time, I had to take some hits for that.
That’s life. Nothing comes without a cost. Which was where the writer of that article had gone wrong. They wanted these characters they were enamored with to succeed without cost of any kind. No sacrifice, all victory.
And that’s simply not how things work. We cannot get something for nothing. Everything we do comes at a cost. That cost varies, from time, to effort, to risk of accident or injury … but there is a cost. This is a universal law.
And if our characters don’t suffer that same universal law? At worst, they’ll feel completely unreal. At best, they’ll feel like they never struggled, like their journey wasn’t earned or worth it to experience.
Neither is something that an author wants to hear about their work. But there’s another angle to this as well.
For a moment, I want you to stop and think of some of the times in your own life when you’ve struggled or pushed against something. When you have had to “take your lumps,” whether or not the end result was failure or success. Think on it for a moment. Now ask yourself this—
Did you grow in any way as a result?
Hopefully you can answer in the affirmative. Because that’s what trial does to us. When something pushes against us, and we push back, it makes us change, even in small ways. Think of it like putting pressure on a piece of wood. If you’ve ever seen a log or a piece of firewood be put under and enormous amount of pressure, then you’ve likely seen water or sap be squeezed out of it, leaving the remaining wood behind.
Not a great comparison, but trial does the same to us. When we’re put on the line, when we’re pressured, that pressure can change us, for good or ill.
Coming back to writing then, if our characters are to grow and change (and remember that some famous authors have held that a story wherein a character doesn’t grow or change in some way is entirely without purpose) then they need to experience pressure, struggle, and “lumps” just like real people.
If we take that away, it’s like removing whole parts of what makes them real to the mind of a reader. A character that doesn’t struggle, doesn’t take their lumps … doesn’t grow. Doesn’t change. Because there’s nothing for them to push against, and in turn be pushed back.
Sands, I would argue that even if they don’t change per se, taking their lumps helps the audience learn more about them and change their opinion of them, perhaps even learning new things about the character.
So then, let me give you an example of a character that take a lot of lumps, through successes and failures, and come out on top an incredibly strong character because of it. One of my favorites.
Lara Croft from the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider.
If someone wants to talk about a character that takes their lumps … oh wow. Lara Croft takes all the lumps. Hits, falls, injuries, burns … over the course of three nightmarish days on an island in the South China Sea, Lara experiences it all.
And it changes her. The game opens on a fresh college student looking to make her mark on the world. Then the storm rips her boat in two, she washes up on the island … and she struggles. She takes hits. And along the way, she changes. She becomes a survivor. At first, she’s barely holding on. But as she succeeds and begins to realize that she can do the things being asked of her, even with a little injury, she starts to approach them with more confidence. There’s a key moment (one of several) halfway through the game where, when facing once more the fanatic cult on the island that has hounded her every move and largely been faced in small numbers or even avoided, Lara charges them nearly head on, shouting that she’s coming for them all and none of them can stop her … and the cultists break and RUN.
It’s a very different moment from earlier in the story when she’s nervously swallowing and looking fearful about simply climbing up a cliff face.
The game is full of moments like this. It’s one of the reasons I love it. But through it all? Lara takes her hits. She is not invincible. But she is a survivor, even if she didn’t know it at the very beginning. And through the story, this comes out.
Even as she takes every hit. By the end of the story, she’s battered and bruised. Her clothing is torn and in some cases stitched up with temporary fixes. She’s scraped, bruised, injured, and will definitely need some medical attention as soon as she can get it.
But she’s still standing, still going. And she’s triumphed over the challenges placed before her, even if she had to take a few scrapes to do so.
Tomb Raider (2013) is a story that wouldn’t work if the protagonist were never challenged. If she never took those hits along her path to escaping the island. There’d be an empty lack of accomplishment. There’d be nothing to cheer. Nothing to feel inspired or amazed by. Instead, with every blow that Lara gets up from, with every setback she overcomes, we see her realize how much she’s capable of and what she can accomplish. And … there’s other story stuff too, like her acknowledgement that maybe there’s truth to the supernatural stuff her father was hunting before his death. And the loss of several friends.
And … there were people who decried the game because of Lara’s suffering, calling it “needless” or “pointless” (because of her gender, sigh). But they missed that without any of that challenge, Lara never would have grown or changed.
Seriously, the game is like $5 on Steam all the time. If you’re at all interested in a fantastic game, wait for a sale and grab a copy. It’s fantastic. Brutal, tough … but amazing.
And it wouldn’t be if Lara didn’t face the challenges she did, take the hits, and refuse to give up.
All right, I’m sure some of you aren’t interested in hearing my accolades for a six year-old game, even if it is a great demonstration of today’s topic. Hopefully, though, my explanation sufficed to give reason to this idea that we should let our characters take their lumps. Their hits. Their setbacks.
So then, how can we apply that idea to our writing? This is, after all, about improving our writing. If letting our characters take their hits is going to make them more relatable, more human (even if they’re not technically human), then how can we make sure that we’re delivering on this and not overdoing it or underselling it?
Well … for one, practice. But outside of that old tired line (because it works, so get at it!) we should sit down with our writing and ask ourselves whether or not it makes sense for our character to take injuries or setbacks during various scenes. What effect will it have on the story? What effect on the overall plot?
For example, say you have a character trying to lever open a door with a bar. You could choose to let the character lever the door open … but in the process cut themselves on the metal bar. This is a cost. But now that cost has to be followed through the rest of the story. Will that be cause for change to scenes you’d planned on later? How will the injury affect them?
Most of all, how will they overcome it? Or rather, overcome the limitations that lump brings? Suddenly limiting a character to one hand, or perhaps one hand without excessive pain can teach a reader a lot about a characters state and what they’re determined to accomplish.
Note that this doesn’t simply apply to physical injuries. Someone can “take their lumps” in a social sense as well, making a fool of themselves, misspeaking and causing slight, or any number of other social “gaffs” that can cause them to struggle.
There are other “lumps” that one can take too. Emotional. Financial. I could go on.
At the end of the day, however, taking your lumps means that your characters will face consequences and struggles in their path for whatever “victory” happens to be. They will face setbacks. Some of those setbacks they might never overcome, instead finding a “shortcut” that takes them around it.
Because our characters aren’t all-powerful and unstoppable. They shouldn’t be! They should have struggles, take their hits, have their costs to every action.
Just. Like. Us. Like real people. And while the adventures may be fantastic, the characters stupendous … that facet of realism is something we shouldn’t give up. We can vary it in its intensity (and should, considering our audience; for example children’s books face fairly light setbacks because children are learning). But at the end of each book?
Our characters should have taken a few lumps. Be that loss, struggle, death, or even if you’re really twisty, success.
But they take their lumps like we take ours. And that makes them “human.” It makes them relatable to the audience.
So get out there, and let your characters take their lumps.
Good luck. Now get writing!