Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Character's Class Schedule: Happiness Appreciation

Happiness Appreciation: Enjoying the Little Things

Ever had one of those days where nothing goes right?
Well, fictional characters have those days a lot.
Which is good! Part of being a writer is raising the stakes. Upping the action. Making the reader hang on your every heart-stopping word. We look at a scene and ask ourselves, “How can we make our main character’s day/week/life even worse?
We ruin our character’s lives on a regular basis, prying the things they love most from their fingers.
And if you don’t do this, dear readers, perhaps you should.
I repeat. This is a good thing. Not only does pushing characters into these situations force them into some serious character development, but it also grips the reader in ways that sunshine and birthday parties simply can’t.
When the character’s life – not to mention sanity – is hanging by a thread, those are the moments when a reader is on the edge of their chair, desperately turning pages, deep into the night no matter how early they have to get up the next morning.
These Scenes of Eternal Despair pop up everywhere. Your character is physically and mentally exhausted, deprived of food, sleep, and showers. He’s injured. Friends have died. Homes have burned. The whole world is against your main character, and even the few allies he started out with are starting to rethink their choice to stay with him (that is, if they even bothered to stick around this long).
A ‘happy ending’ seems out of the question.
Which is when you start to turn things around. But I’ll save that tangent for a future post on this topic that I have partially written already (it’ll no doubt be coming sometime after the Back to School series ends).
The focus of this lesson is on the happy moments within the despair. The tantalizing glimpses of hope that give your characters the will to go on living, and your readers the will to keep on reading.
You see, folks, while well-done Despair plots can be gripping, and exciting, and suspenseful to a reader, 200 pages of nothing but suck and injustice and tragedies would be enough to make anyone throw your book against the wall and seek out something cheerful and fluffy.
We like to feel sad or scared for a time (After all, there are whole genres for ‘The World is Ending’ scenarios).
But the bad needs to be broken up with good, happy moments that keep us smiling and waiting for the happy ending; it’s gotta show up sometime.
It could be something as simple as a butterfly at the sight of a battlefield, or it could be a reunion between old friends, or it could be a single triumph that reminds everyone that the character’s plan may not be so hopeless after all. It all depends on how dark you want your story to be.
Some common ways to Interrupt the Suck:
Humor – You could have the most depressing, bloody, murder-filled book in the world, but if you slip in just enough humor to make the reader smile from time to time, it should help keep the reader from getting so depressed that they give up on it entirely. However, you shouldn’t be too irreverent. Making light of the gruesome, traumatizing death of someone close to the MC or his acquaintances could very well make your reader angry or frustrated with the characters involved. Make sure your humor fits with your characters’ personalities. But for darker scenes, I recommend a somewhat darker humor. Allow me to recommend a healthy dose of sarcasm.
Beauty – Like I said. Butterflies on the scene of a battlefield. An ancient cathedral that somehow has remained untouched in the center of a warzone. Often dealing with a fair amount of symbolism, this method is less to make the reader smile, and more to stir the main character’s spirit. These are the flashes of hope that reassure everyone, things are going to get better. Eventually. Just not right away.
Characters – There are certain people – in this world, as well as fictional worlds  - who can dispel even the darkest moods. Maybe it’s their overwhelming optimism, or their great sense of humor (see above), or the way they know exactly what kind of pep talk will make things seem not that bad after all. Whatever it is, just the sight of this character is enough to lift your MC’s spirits (Unfortunately, this type of character often serves as the Sacrificial Lamb, dying for the sake of – again – making your MC’s day even worse. This is rather cliché… But it happens). In some cases, it has nothing to do with the character’s personality. If it’s someone the MC hasn’t seen in ages, or someone who was last seen going into a dangerous situation, just seeing them alive and well will be enough to give your MC a sense of relief (and give your readers a short breather).
Triumph – A crucial victory. A petty victory. The sight of reinforcements on the horizon. A snappy comeback at exactly the right moment during an argument. Your MC finally gets a hint that his crush might return his affections. Even the little victories – like getting to ride shotgun, or managing to take a shotgun from the evil kidnappers – could be enough to make things seem a shade better than they did a few seconds ago.
So, what did we learn today, class? Scenes of Eternal Despair can be gripping. They can also be discouraging. To refresh the reader every so often, slip in a snippet of hope, or of humor.
Your (optional) homework: Write a Scene of Eternal Despair, where things just keep getting worse and worse (for one of your characters, or a scene for your novel, or a completely unrelated scene just for the practice). Incorporate a snippet of hope.
Have you written a Scene of Eternal Despair before? Can you think of any examples from books or movies?
(EDIT) Oh yeah, and one more thing. Those Scenes of Eternal Despair? They might not be so eternal after all. ;)


  1. I love the idea of letting characters win a "petty victory." I'll remember that. I do have a scene of eternal despair in my middle grade novel, The Christmas Village, which will be out soon. Jamie has found himself magically transported into his Grandma's Christmas Village, and he is desperate to get back home. Things get more and more complicated and he despairs of ever getting home again. I took a workshop where the presenter said, "make things bad for your protagonist. then make them worse. then make them even worse." I remembered that, even for my kid's book!

  2. Like I said, lol, it's a great way to add conflict. ^^ If everything always goes right for a character, where's the interesting story supposed to be? XD

  3. I've stopped reading books before that were nothing but constant doom and gloom. I've stopped watching movies for the same thing. Give me something to smile at - even for a brief moment. Just give me some hope!

    After all, if there is not hope whatsoever for a happy ending, there's no point in me reading your book. I like happy endings.They don't necessarily all have to be fluffy-happy-rainbow-unicorn happy endings - but I need to be left with a feeling of hope.

    Life can be depressing enough - I don't need a book to add to it!

  4. This is great stuff! Seriously great stuff (no pun intended)!

  5. @ JA: I'll confess... A lot of my stories turn out a lot more depressing/creepy than I mean them to. XD But I try to slip in some of those smiley moments here and there, to break the tension. :]

    @Small Town Shelly Brown: Thanks. ^^ And, pun appreciated. :) Seriously. I'm like, the QUEEN of puns. I use them way too often. XD

  6. Well, I would certainly hope you would slip in some smiley moments! Nothing worse than a teacher who does not practice what she teaches! ;)

  7. Silent, I agree with the whole too much gloom, here.

    I have a Canadian writer whose writing I really like, but there is no redeeming his books. He likes to hurt his characters in the worst ways, and there's nothing to alleviate it. Nothing at all. In the middle of his stories, I put the book down to read something flowery and light, then go back to him.

    But I always press on hoping that in the end, something good will come out of it...

    Never happens.

    Another great blog post!