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Thursday, February 6, 2020

Danger, Will Robinson! Danger! (Mailbox)

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer one or two of them every week or so. I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Let me know if a question is urgent because the queue turn over is getting up around months right now.] 

Hey Chris,

I’m writing the climactic battle at the end of my WIP. My crit group says I have to kill a good guy to underscore the danger of the climactic battle. As a note: my WIP is set in Latin America and all of the characters are Latine. I’m a white US citizen.  

Problem is, of the 10 good guys in the battle, three are walk-on characters and the others are significant, named characters, most of whom I need for the sequel. At this point it only makes sense for one of three characters to be killed.

1)  A black, female walk-on character

2) A black, male significant character

3) A significant Latina character

I don’t want to kill either of the black characters because I don’t want to use a black person as the sacrificial death. It makes me uncomfortable as a writer. If there was a situation in which a lot of good guys died, I’d be okay with it, but just one? No.

I don’t want to kill the black woman because she is a walk-on and it wouldn’t be emotionally significant to my readers. I don’t want to kill the black man because I want him in the sequel. I don’t want to kill the Latina because she had this huge arc regarding healing from trauma and this is the first time she’s been seen as anything other than ‘trauma-chick,’ and to kill her now would send a message I’m not sure I’m comfortable with.

So here are my questions.

1) Is killing a character the best way to underscore the danger in the climactic battle? Is there anything else that I could do instead?

2) Am I overthinking this?

Sign me,

Uncomfortable with my own writing

My reply:

Hi, Uncomfortable.

You're right. That's a lot to unpack. But I don't make an average of roughly minimum wage for nothing!

*finger guns*

First of all, I don't think you're overthinking it. I wish more writers took a moment and considered what they were doing with this degree of care. I think this is exactly what writers should be thinking about. How do our stories contribute, in whatever small way, to the zeitgeist of cultural perceptions and to a gestalt of bad representation. Writers have a tremendous amount of power when it comes to reinforcing or questioning storytelling conventions, tropes, and representation; these things, in turn, shape cultural perceptions and have a very powerful impact on how we treat folks.

Not a racist who walks this Earth does not justify their behavior with STORIES. Not a single misogynist. Not a single transphobe. Not a single bigot. It might be stories their parents told them. It might be lies repeated so often they accepted them as truth. It might be narratives they never unpacked that come from poor representation in media. But it's stories all the way down, and that is part of the reason fiction can be so fucking powerful. (It's also the reason bigots somehow all magically know precisely when to start complaining about "everything being so PC" when something has really good representation of oft-marginalized groups. They know EXACTLY how dangerous good representation is to their world view.)  And if we're not taking that charge seriously and letting our stories perpetuate tropes with an unexamined nonchalance, we are upholding the status quo with a LOT of power.

So I kind of agree that you don't have a good sacrificial lamb of the three characters you mentioned. Particularly, you probably want to be very careful about anyone who just showed up. Don't forget that killing characters JUST to raise the stakes has kind of a dubious literary precedent, especially if they aren't very well developed characters. (And especially especially if they are women or BIPOC.)

You might have to have no character deaths if you need all your characters in place for your sequel. And that's okay. If you want to sit with your reasons for needing the other seven characters to live, that might be worth a good think or three. Are these your darlings? Do you need to be killing them? Wanting them from a significant literary point of view might be different than just having you picture a handful of cool moments they have coming up. (The latter you can almost certainly figure out how to give to another character.) The most tragic and heart-wrenching deaths in fiction are the ones that happen to characters who are A) ABSOLUTELY on a character arc (in other words, not "walk-on" characters) and B) who never get a chance to finish that arc. The cliche of this is of course the person who finally decides which person in a love triangle they want to be with right before a toilet falls from orbit onto their head, or someone who realizes the error of their ways and goes for redemption but gets shot by a kitten trebuchet moments later. So it might actually be BETTER for the tragical tragidiferousness of it all if one of your other seven characters bought the farm.

All that said....the ass I'm really going to kick today is the crit group's. Okay, I know you like them, so I won't ACTUALLY kick their ass, but I think they're giving you advice that is more mainstream Hollywould-quickfix wisdom than actually good literary writing advice.

Death in fiction can be emotionally wrought or a casual throw-away sentence. It can rip you apart or barely make you blink. But outside of a murder plot point, if a writer has to kill someone to properly reflect the emotional stakes of what is happening, then they have already failed. You shouldn't need a body count to underscore that your climactic battle is srs bzns.

Will your reader feel that your characters were never in any real danger? Sure.....if you never put them in any real danger. But that's also going to be true if you basically fridge exactly one character but never put the other nine in any real danger. How your readers will receive that will be to think that the character died to emotionally manipulate them. And they will be right.

And I'm sure you've encountered more than a few stories where a character's death put mortality on the table of a climactic scene, served the meta narrative almost perfectly, perhaps even gave the work a thematic catharsis, or even arguably performed a strange sort of reader interactive experience by bringing the audience viscerally along with the sudden realization that "the ride was over." And yet it STILL seemed sudden, unearned, emotionally manipulative and didn't really raise or lower the stakes of the storytelling that had been built around it at all.

And don't you just want to curse that author's sudden but.....

I recently rewatched one of my favorite childhood cartoons, X-Men. Each season they have some major overarching plot come to a massive resolution. (Crap, I think they were doing it before shows like Babylon 5 or Buffy were even on the air.) And....I want to make sure I'm clear about the following: The dialogue in this show is not that great. The fights are formulaic. The plots are simplified so that the kids watching can keep up. The animation is pretty meh even for a '90s cartoon. They ALWAYS use the same goddamn song for every episode's final fight. This is not tour de force cinema we're talking about here. Also....to get back to the topic, no one ever really dies. At least none of the main characters. (A couple kind of do, but they come back because that's how comics work.)

Yet even two decades later, these are some of the best climactic endings to story arcs I've seen. Because one thing they nail is that the stakes are clear. Emotionally, personally, and externally, all the stakes are well laid out.

In Lord of the Rings, after Boromir, not ONE member of the Fellowship dies. Not ONE. Gandalf "falls" but he gets better (*cough actually a LOT better cough*). In fact, very few named GOOD characters die at all. But did you ever have some inability to really imagine they were in danger at Helm's Deep, or Minas Tirith, or the Cirith Gorgor pass? (The only battle that was kind of low stakes was Isengard and that was probably because it was skimmed over in favor of basically saying "The Ents kicked ALL the goddamned ass." [In the books it is told by Merry and Pippin after the fact and they mention a single casualty, and in the movies it is only two minutes of Ents kicking the ever-loving PISS out of orcs that takes place after the movie's Helm's Deep climax, basically to be a part of the "hold onto hope" Sean Astin voice over montage.])

So let's put your characters in real danger, not just artificially inflated danger. Don't be nice to them. Fuck them up. Hit them where it hurts and make them face the things they're NOT good at handling. Make them deal with opponents who are definitely better than them, and they have to scrape by on their wits. Make them face their biggest fears. Jack their fucking shit UP, yo.

Plus, don't forget, death is just the final step in a series of increasingly dire "real" consequences to a character. If they are all badly wounded and maimed by the end, the danger will be plenty underscored. Rip limbs off. Tear eyes out. Break bones like woah. Plus you can pull some of the sneaky writer tricks if you want––like impale a character, have them slump over, and then move the narrative on to someone else. (But then later it turns out they are still alive, but might have to eat soup through a straw for the rest of their days.)  What about capturing one of them? How about hurting things they care about? Hit them where they live. What about blowing up the car that is the only thing Character Y still has of his brother? What about using their phobias against them? What if they've got it until the most powerful protagonist is deliberately PTSD triggered? How about if the most vain character gets their face peeled off? Any one of these characters might survive for your sequel, but part of them also died, and the danger was very clear. You're the writer. You can put these characters in SO much danger without actually killing them that your reader is screaming "LOOK OUT BEHIND YOU!!!!" at the books. You could make death a sweet release and the LEAST of their concerns.

[Full disclaimer, I know a LITTLE bit about the story in question and the author may have even MORE options to jack up the characters since they might have some supernatural healing going on.]

You can use pacing to speed up and slow down the scene for effect. Mark Watney doesn't die in The Martian, but the moment Weir begins the multi-page description of the depressurization of his potato room, you KNOW exactly how much danger he's in.

You can also raise the stakes without offing someone just by making the stakes extremely clear. Is it very, very clear exactly what happens if they lose? How bad is it gonna get? (The answer doesn't have to be world devastation or the death of half of all life in the universe––actually that gets a little melodramatic. It can be as simple as "the girl we're trying to rescue will end up with her abusive father" or something.) How many times in a story have you thought "Why don't they just leave?" or "Why would these people care so much?" These are unclear stakes.  With clear enough stakes, there is NO reason you have to kill a single character to convey how important it is that the protagonist succeed.

Though not a "no kill" example, one of the reasons that Star Wars always is listed in the top ten movie climaxes is because the stakes are so mountain-spring-lake crystal clear. The Death Star is going to destroy the rebellion, including two main characters who are on the planet, and (at the time-ew) Luke's love interest. Plus the Empire are a bunch of fart weasels and they will win, but honestly it's the "The Death Star has cleared the planet..." when they realize THEY'RE going to die (not that the rebellion is in trouble) that brings all that climactic energy home.

You can raise the EMOTIONAL stakes by investing personal stakes for the characters. Rather than just a fight scene with large-scale stakes, there is also something personal going on. It's not just about Spider-Man beating Doc Ock. It's about Peter Parker helping someone he knows isn't a bad person stop and think for long enough to find their own redemption.

You can nuance the consequences of the character's actions. Okay, I'm sure you have thought of X happens if they lose and Y happens if they win. But then, do they just line up and pound it out until everyone on one side is dead? That's basically NEVER the way things happen. What are other outcomes? What happens if the protagonists don't fight? (How might that be desperately appealing to some or all of them?) What happens if SOME of them don't fight?  What happens if Character X can't overcome her demons and face Character Y? What if one of the antagonists ties a "consequence" to their deaths? ("If you kill me, you'll never find out about your mom.")  What happens if one antagonist gets away or they all just LEAVE as soon as it's clear they might lose? Remember, most people aren't going to stick around if they hit a certain threshold of mortal danger without some kind of training or a reason like protecting their young––morale is a thing. If half of them get away, will they just start the whole nefarious plot over again from somewhere else? Do they know the location of a protagonist's family? What are the stakes to partial loss?

Or here's perhaps an even more interesting question: what about the consequences of their victory? Riding into the sunset is great if you're in a spaghetti western, but most of the time, if you are at the point where you're in a life-or-death fight with another group, "winning" is seldom going to be the end of it.

You can add a time limit. Obviously a bomb of some kind is the cliché but it doesn't have to be a bomb. It could be as simple as needing to wrap up the fight before reinforcements show up. Or before the next radio check in from the guy with the gun to the hostage's head. What happens if they win the fight but it takes too long? What happens if two knocked out characters are waking up at the same time and they both want to get to the gun in the middle of the room? You can raise the stakes basically by encouraging your reader to be thinking "Come on! Hurry the fuck UP!!!!!"

Let me remind you of a final battle scene you've probably come to know and love where no one dies. Now this is not a Disney movie (though a few of those might be good examples of how to raise stakes without death). Many MANY characters have died before this final climactic scene. What was at stake prior to this final, climactic moment was arguably more important. But in this scene you understand EXACTLY what's going to happen if the protagonist fails. Viscerally. All too clearly. And it becomes pins and needles the whole way through. THIS is the climax.

"Get away from her, you bitch."

Did you get chills? I got chills. And I'm writing the article.

Emotional stakes at maximum. No raise-the-stakes death needed. One character gets totally fucked the fuck up in the opening move (Queen takes Bishop *rimshot*  Pause for laffs.), but turns out to survive. The stakes were raised even higher than the everybody-dying-one-by-one earlier parts of the film because of the PERSONAL stakes established in the relationship between Ripley and Newt. Pacing is slowed down and sped up with MAMMOTHIAN artistic licence. (The Queen didn't say "If that door's going to fucking take ten full seconds to open and she's going to take another twenty to walk over here and drop her line, I'm just going to pop this kid with my tail a few times while I wait.") We know Ripley could probably get to the weapons cache and grab the two pulse rifles she would need to dual wield in order to win in about five seconds, but then she loses Newt who she has bonded with after the loss of her daughter. And even though they drove away from bomb-on-a-timer a scene earlier, this scene is also full of moments where delay will cost (getting to Newt on time, getting up the ladder fast enough).

Here's the rest of the scene if you need a refresher.

Ask yourself how emotionally invested the characters are in the outcome of your climax. If they are pretty much along for the ride, that's what it's going to feel like to your reader whether you kill no characters or nine. How much does achieving their goal matter to them? If they could take it or leave it, so could your reader.

You don't necessarily need a death to show your reader it's dangerous. What you need is clear, emotional stakes (not necessarily high, but very, very clear), and then actual danger.