Thursday, November 22, 2007

Risky Business

Another elegant Edmund Dulac illustration
from Tales from the Arabian Nights,
Reader's Digest edition, 1991.

Thanks to Cyn for her link to published author Joshua Palmatier ( of action and intrigue fantasy novels: The Cracked Throne and The Skewed Throne -- the third, The Vacant Throne, to come out next year) and a most interesting blog post on risks.

(If I screwed up the link, it can be accessed from her blog.)

By risks, however, he doesn't mean tricks in technique, like writing in second person present in a genre that doesn't expect it, avoiding all punctuation, or eliminating every part of speech except verbs and nouns.

He means taking risks with plot and character.

To illustrate, he uses an example of a character that is set upon and has the piss beaten out of him.


And rather than just drop it in and then back off from the character's "shame and pain," he made that helplessness and embarrassment over wet pants part of the story.

Real, natural -- but risky.

Readers might react unfavourably to a hero who pisses himself. It might fall into that category of Things They'd Rather Not Read About.

Joshua's post was particularly timely for me.

I've been dithering over whether I dare take risks with Lillie in my WIP.

Thinking that if I don't, there's danger she might become Just Another Paranormal Heroine.

Certainly, I set her up for it, straight from the first scene when she says: I'd managed to kill my husband a second time.

Oh sure, superficially that's calculated suspense, but the various and subsequent issues related to and eventually evolving from that statement might be considered distasteful and disturbing by some readers. Sexual issues, moral issues.

But that blunt statement alone might make some readers uneasy, queasy, reluctant.

Then I realized, with the violence of the final scene of Stone Child, I'd already made the decision to risk reader approval of my character.

Naturally, success depends -- as always -- on how well a writer manages these deviations from the standard.

So, have you taken risks with your characters, your plot?


Julie said...


I'm coming up with a not found error on Palmentier, though I can pick up Cyn.

Bernita said...

Yes, Julie. I really screwed that one up.
I think it's fixed now.

Robyn said...

Though I'm not a huge fan of Gabaldon (never read past the first Outlander) I thought Jamie's torture/rape was an unusual decision. VERY uncomfortable to read that scene; the poor guy was laid bare in so many ways.

And it probably sounds odd to follow that up with Happy Thanksgiving, Americans, but have a great day if you're celebrating!

Jaye Wells said...

Motivation is key here. My MC kills her friend in the first scene of my novel. She believes it's justified, but spends the rest of the book finding out she was wrong. It wasn't just gratuitous violence for the sake of having a hook.

Robyn brings up an excellent example with Gabaldon. She's such an amazing storyteller that you trust her to bring you through that kind of scene for a purpose.

Bernita said...

Excellent example, Robyn. That was a very well done scene on many complex levels.

Yes, Jaye, such events can't just be dropped in and then abandoned like a fart in an elevator.

pundy said...

You'd be hard pushed to find a more unsympathetic main character than the guy in my online novel A Half Life Of One. The challenge for me was to try and explain how he - like any of us - could become so evil. The risk of course is that no-one cares enough to find out.

Scott from Oregon said...

I prefer really flawed characters who show what it means to be human.

I'm way past tired of fantasy heroes.

Sometimes just getting through it all with some form of decency and humor is the most heroic action of all.

Gabriele C. said...

I think some of my scenes are 'risky', like when Arminius not only condones the sacrifying of the captured Roman officers after the Varus battle, but kills a few in person. Sure, the reason behind his decision is that he wants to give them a clean death, but imagine, he knows these men, he's spent months with them in military comradeship (as far as the Romans accepted the German, and some of them did), and now he cuts their heads off. It's a very dark moment.

Talorcan is another of my MCs who acts like a villain sometimes in his desperate struggle for revenge and the independence of his tribe.

The Jamie scene is a great example for doing those things right, btw.

raine said...

A tricky subject here.

Yes, I've taken some risks. Find that the more I write, the more I want to indulge in them. Some have been successful, some have not (no doubt, I haven't always handled them well). But I can only take so much of the cookiecutter stuff, and I love flawed characters.

And I think the 'risky' aspects are the ones that often strike reviewers and linger with readers. And this is good.
Must have the skill to pull it off, though.

Bernita said...

I think readers are predisposed to have interest/sympathy with a main character, Pundy.
In some genres it's quite acceptable to have a misogynist bastard as one - creates a kind of horrified fascination.

Flawed chatacter are one thing, Scott, but the risk may come in when the flaws shake the reader's belief in the essential goodness/decency of the character.

Yes, Gabriele, particularly when readers sucumb to anchronistic attitudes about right/wrong behaviour, it can be quite risky.
Personally, in those circumstances and within the warrior framework, I would consider Arminius' actions rather noble.
I wonder if historical fiction gets a bye in some cases, as long as the actions are consistent with the societal milieu?

My risks so far are probably fairly timid, Raine, but I know what you mean but the excessive sweetness and light.

Carla said...

All writers take risks to a degree, don't they, because there's no way of knowing what a reader will or won't find offensive or unsympathetic. A scene that one reader finds powerful may well cause a different reader to slam shut the book, never to return. What may be true is that a book that doesn't upset anyone may not excite or grip anyone either.

Ello said...

I think any good writer has to take a risk with their writing just in their quest to be original and different, like you said Bernita. I hope I did in my novel, I believe I did, but perhaps I am not the right person to judge because I only wrote what I thought was essential to the story.

Ah the luxury of time one has when not cooking on Thanksgiving! All I have to do is get in my car in a few hours to go eat!

The Anti-Wife said...

I think it's interesting and good to take risks, but if you want the readers to continue to be involved in the story, the risks need to be believable within the context of the story and not just there for the shock value.

Bernita said...

That's quite true in the general sense, Carla.
But I think what Joshua is getting at is a departure outside the standard risks.

Sometimes, Ello, I think anything that smacks of atavism these days is risky.Though what is risky in one genre may not be in another.
Storming here.
Glad our Thanksgiving is in October.
But Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

Bernita said...

I agree, AW, they must be relevant to both chatacter and plot.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

One of my favorite characters becomes a cold-blooded killer. Nice guy, but he'd just as soon shoot you as have a chat.

He succombs sacrificing himself and his morality to go undercover with his enemy.

ORION said...

I was told it was very risky to have a first person POV of a man who was mentally challenged. The actual risk was not in the believability or that the reader would not sympathize with the character but in the limitations I placed on myself as an author - another thing to think about...

Nothingman said...

Its fun risking the characters...never really tried it in the way it is put me thoughts, I prefer killing off the characters in the worst possible ways...

Good thoughtful post :)


SzélsőFa said...

I'm reading and enjoying the contributions here. Can't add my opinion, not having done anything risky to my characters, though.

SzélsőFa said...

I followed the link and found it a thorough and very useful read. Thank you.
I'll have to keep those lines in mind when writing.

Bernita said...

He sounds quite fascinating, SS.

I agree it was double jeopardy on the pov limitations, Pat.
But you succeeded beautifully!
Perry's dictionary study being one of the devices.

Thank you, Nothingman...who isn't.

Happy you found it so, Szelsofa.

Billy said...

If we agree that Vonnegut took risks with his characters (which I think he did without the reader losing identification with said character), then I give a highly qualified yes.