Nearly every novel shows a character with a big conflict. Sometimes conflicts are so vast
that the tale is overwhelming.
But readers must somehow muddle through those tough times, and what is going on in the
reader’s life will affect how much they can handle in a novel. Is your reader’s mother dying
from cancer? Did they put a beloved pet down this week? Is the reader out of a job? Those
kinds of losses can make reading the dark passages of a novel difficult.
I saw a good illustration of this a few years ago. A woman who had gone through a divorce
wrote a beautiful passage about the challenges her character was facing as she was dumped
by her husband. Many of the class members loved it and found it so affecting that they
broke into spontaneous applause—but two of the women were so devastated by the
passage that they fled the room in tears. Both women had recently been through divorces.
Obviously, as writers we want to touch our readers deeply. We want to hold them through
our books, even during the dark passages. How can we do this? Here are a few thoughts…
1) Heroism is a family trait. In ancient Greek theater, to be a hero you had to have heroic
parents. In other words, the royals had trained the peasants properly by saying, “Not
just anyone can do this.” But the trick still works today. This was handled nicely in J.J.
Abram’s 2009 movie “Star Trek”. When a young Captain Kirk has his ship attacked by an
angry Romulan, he heroically fights off his attackers just long enough so that his young
wife and child can escape the ship, and then our hero gets blown up. Of course, the
baby—James T. Kirk—is the one who returns and avenges the father some 25 years
Sure, the formula may be 3000 years old, but it still works.
2) The secret power. Does your character have a unique ability—Zorro’s mastery of
swordplay, young Sheldon’s sharp wit, or Rocky Balboa’s ability to take a blow? Show it
early in your story, and that will give the reader hope.
3) Borrowed glory. When young King Henry’s troops despair in Shakespeare’s “King Henry
V,” he rouses them with a classic speech. Similarly, when Frodo Baggins is unable to go
on seeking the Crack of Doom, his friend Sam Gamgee offers more private support.
If you have a character who must struggle, perhaps you can give them a support
system—a father, mother, lover, friend, teacher, or priest—who provides an example of
how to hold on to hope in dark times. Even teachings from the Bible, Muhammad, or
some other source can help.
4) The early win. Your character is allowed to have victories, and even the smallest victory may signal hope. Let’s say you’ve got a character who is struggling to find a killer, but is coming up stumped. On a side note, for month’s she’s been trying to figure out how a mouse has been getting into her kitchen—and suddenly she discovers a tiny hole under the sink. Yeah, the mouse problem isn’t going to help her dodge bullets, but it does show that she has a fine mind and potential.
5) Light in dark times. Many heroes cling to a hope or a dream throughout their entire
story. Maybe they dream of someday owning a fishing boat or a restaurant, but often
hope comes in the form of “fairy gifts,” any gift given in dark times.
Lady Galadriel gave Frodo a vial of starlight to help him through dark times, for example.
This “fairy gift” is very important in fantasy literature. It’s often an object—a sword, a
ring, or other item that gives its wielder a bit of help. But I like Frodo’s light. He doesn’t
pull it out and look at it often, but in a sense he does. Just before he travels into
Mordor, he looks up and sees a star shining above the darkness. That moment of hope is
one highpoint in the novel.
We see similar scenes over and over in Lord of the Rings as the hobbits meet up with
unexpected friends or have a quiet meal. Each of those reinvigorates their spirit.
Indeed, there is one scene in the Two Towers where Gollum argues with himself about
whether or not he should strangle the “nice hobbits” and take the ring—a scene where
even an enemy shows the potential to become a friend.
But a fairy gift can be anything. It might be a $100 bill that dad gave his daughter before
he was killed in a car wreck, and she saves it as much for sentimental value as
something to help in an emergency. It might be a gun that is loaned to a character, or a
telephone number for a powerful lawyer.
As authors, we need to try to figure out just how much darkness our readers can handle,
and when it is called for, offer a bit of hope.
Of course, you’ll never get a perfect mix. You’ll always be too heart-wrenching for some
readers and too much of a Pollyanna for others. I’m convinced that this is the sole
reason that no one book can satisfy all readers.
* * *
This week in Apex, we interviewed New York Times bestselling
author Jonathan Maberry, creator of V-Wars, the Joe Ledger series, and
many other fine properties. For those interested in joining Apex,
email the word Apex to email@example.com
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