...wherein I manhandle a character, and then question myself as an author and my choices in abusing people, even fictional ones.
My WIP’s main character, “M,” had a moment this week. A bad moment.
M went to see this guy she should not have gone to see, as amateur sleuths are wont to do. M has lost people she loves in what everyone, especially her know-it-all brother the sheriff, insists were simple accidents. She’s convinced of the opposite, but no one believes her. And it doesn’t help that some people say that she’s cursed. No. Not helpful at all, that one.
So, she goes to see This Guy, the husband of a friend and someone she should avoid for about a thousand good reasons. But she’s sure he knows things about the accidents, so she questions him. And things get a little hot. So hot that she very nearly slaps him. By very nearly, I mean she raises her hand to the proper pre-slap position, but stops herself. Hitting This Guy will bring her down to his level, and she may be cursed, but she’s not a lowlife. So, she lowers her hand and walks away.
I was proud of her. So proud, in fact, that it took me a moment to see that keeping her on the high ground completely flat-lined the action of the story.
You know that dramatic arc illustrated in workshops, where the line climbs higher as story tension mounts? My arc was shooting upwards and then it plummeted, because M is too damn nice for her own good, and for the good of the book.
I had to reverse the plummet, had to get M off her high horse and back into the fray, to do… what?
She couldn’t hit him. That was already decided. But, what if I made him hit her? That would fit his character. And it would reverse the plummet.
So, I tried it. She stopped herself from slapping him, but instead of letting her walk away, he hit her.
No, wait. Not hit her, as in punch her. He wouldn’t go that far. He grabbed her arm. Hard. She pulled away. No, wait. She tried to pull away, so he gripped harder. He yanked her closer. Then he told her off. No. No, he did more than that. He threatened her. Her and her loved ones. Then she pulled out of his grasp. Or…instead, she tried to pull away, but he dug his nails into her arm, so she had to twist out of his grasp, and his fingernails scraped her arm. Better yet, his nails gouged in her arm, leaving a trail of bloody marks.
Whoa. Now we’re cooking. This lights a bunch of new fires. This Guy seems capable of violence, which is news to all. The grab will leave a mark. If her brother the sheriff sees this, he’ll go ballistic.
But, do I want him to see it? Or do I want M to hide it, because she was not supposed to see This Guy in the first place? And then there is This Guy’s family. There are children in the house. If she gets This Guy in trouble, will he take it out on someone even more innocent? And what about her friend? Has This Guy ever manhandled her?
Yeah, baby! Danger. Violence. Threats. Hard choices. All good stuff, and all I had to do to accomplish that was knock M around a little.
This is not the first time I have abused a character. I’ve written a guy getting pistol-whipped. I’ve written a girl who runs off with a couple of guys who make her “do things.” I’ve written a young boy who can’t swim thrown into the Gulf of Mexico by a drunken shrimp boat captain. I’ve written a man repeatedly bitten by a snake. I’ve written a boy forced to fight his two adult uncles. I’ve written an unstable person who inadvertently hurts an animal. I’ve written a woman psychologically abused during an affair. I’ve written a young man who survives a shooting that kills his father. I used one bullet there—through the boy and into the father—to make his survivor guilt a heavier burden.
In all of these, the point of the story had been the abuse. Never, until the moment with M, did I write an abusive moment because I needed an exciting plot point. But after my initial relief of fixing the scene died down, I wondered if I’d just written myself into a moral dilemma. Was this unbearably callous? Abuse a character to advance a plot? Where had that come from?
But here’s the odd thing. In the story, it had happened. It was unexpected, a surprise to everyone, but he’d done it. He grabbed her arm. That genie was not going back into the bottle. It was written and there was no going back. Why? Because it felt right to the story. Because, in real life, things like this happen.
When I work with new writers, one of my standard suggestions is to remind them about missed opportunities. Sometimes action offers an opportunity to make a story richer and deeper. Sometimes it offers an opportunity to talk about what not everyone feels comfortable talking about.
There are writers, and readers, who refused to write or read women in jeopardy, or kids in jeopardy, or animal abuse stories. I get that. If there’s torture or graphic violence in a story, I’m gone. While I doubt anyone would consider my arm-grabbing scene as graphic violence, there are those who might give me grief for going there.
But I did. And now I have an opportunity to elevate the story by asking some questions that a woman in real life, in this situation, would ask.
Starting with, what does she do now?
If This Guy had punched her, the answer would be simple. She’d go to her brother. But This Guy grabbed her arm in a heated argument. A grab is different from a punch. Or is it? Does it mean he lost his temper, or that he’s a woman beater? If she doesn’t tell anyone, and he hurts her friend, is that her fault? Or would that make things worse? Now that she knows he’s got a scary temper, what is her responsibility? But wait, she’s a victim. Why am I assigning responsibility for something that is not her fault?
I am still pondering the answers to those questions, but not to what happened. Violence happens, and we as authors should not be afraid to write about it. With one simple change in a scene, questions opened up, difficult questions that real women in real life face every day. Those questions can’t be asked, or answered, if a character always takes the high road and walks away.