Kurt Vonnegut’s Sixth Rule for Writing Fiction
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they’re made of. –Kurt Vonnegut
No one likes to betray a friend, but we sometimes feel that way when we make bad things happen to our characters. But then, maybe you don’t feel that way. maybe it’s easy for you to throw obstacles at your protagonist because you don’t care much for them. Ideally, though, you will feel a little bit bad when you, as I did recently, have a Sasquatch jump out of a forest and beat your favorite character near to death (it’s a fantasy–work with me here). I may have cried a little. I do that sometimes.
For me, this rule, like the greatest two-handed broadsword, is double-edged. On one edge, we need to create (or, as some might say, build or discover, depending on your personal writing philosophy) characters that we love, that we hate to hurt. If we’re not doing this–if we as their creator don’t have an intense emotional connection to them, how much less will the reader care?–we’re letting our readership down. Our characters’ pain should, at least in some small part, become our pain.
The second side we need to allow our characters to experience these misfortunes. If we don’t, we’ll never really know them. How do they react when faced with Sasquatch in a dimly lit forest and the break of day? How do they cope when their loved one dies? How do their bodies mend after a car crash? How do they recover psychologically after a messy divorce? After being betrayed by their best friend? What does this do to them?
This is not to say that the characters life must be one tragedy after another, a veritable helicopter rotary blade of horrors. Your character should overcome, should be rewarded for their efforts. Just understand, that, once they do, something else must threaten them, or their families, or their fortunes, or whatever it is that they care most about.
Wallace Stevens says that, “Death is mother of beauty.” This may suggest that we only appreciate beauty because we know it is temporary, we know that there is an ever-abiding threat. If beauty persisted indefinitely, we would not call it beauty. We would not even notice it to begin with.
Make something beautiful by introducing something that threatens it. Take something your character feels is permanent, and then threaten it. Then, and only then, can you see what your character is truly made of.