I have often heard that writers have something to say. I agree with this in theory. If you ask my mother, she will tell you that I always had something to say, since I uttered my first word at eight months old. When I start a story, I feel like I know what I want to say. As I get into the heart of the story that feeling gets stronger. However, it starts to fade just after the climax. Once I have tortured my characters as much as I can, I am so spent emotionally that all I want to do is fix everything for them and tie it up neatly into a happy ending.
But, happy endings are boring. They aren't how we live in real life. Real life is messy. We resolve one thing while another is rearing its nasty head. We can be happy one minute and fearful, sad or angry within seconds. We can love fiercely and be disgusted by the same person. It's never black and white. That is how writing a novel is. No matter how much I want to mimic a fairy tale, I can't. It doesn't feel natural. I feel like I am cheating my characters, my readers and myself out of the true story.
My MFA advisors would agree. They all told me at one time or another to raise the obstacles, stakes, and consequences for my characters. It was difficult to do that to them for several reasons.
- I loved my characters. I felt like their mom, so why would I want to hurt them?
- I thought that I had been as harsh as I could but my advisors wanted more. I always struggled with what more I could do.
- The more complicated and dire I made their situation, the harder it would be to resolve.
I have blogged about reasons 1 and 2 before but haven't really touched on 3. Loving my characters is easy to wrap my head around, but resolving some of the issues they face is much more challenging, even if I created them.
I don't always have experience with their struggles. For example, when my protagonist was dealing with a drug-addicted mother who made her home life unstable, I drew from the mothers I knew through my time as a foster parent, not as a survivor of that environment. Those are two completely different points of view. My character was living it, whereas I only knew a by-product of that life from kids much younger than my character. In order to be authentic, I had to imagine life from the inside though I had never lived it. Pulling the emotions that would come from that POV was challenging and I feared that I might do the story an injustice if I over-simplified the outcome. That would have been disappointing to readers, especially any who could relate to the character's life and expected to a true depiction of their feelings along with an example of how someone in that situation can overcome.
If I were writing from an adult perspective, there would be more options. But kids and teenagers are limited in what they can do. They don't have the money, means or resources necessary to make problems go away the way adults can. They also lack the experience and cognitive problem-solving skills that we develop as adults. I have to take all that into account when I think about how my teen protagonist is going to solve her dilemma when she doesn't have a car, an income, or the independence to exercise free will. Also, that age group is all about exerting their independence. They want to be the heroes of their stories, not have an adult save them. The resolutions have to come from them. I can't have a parent, teacher, coach, etc. swoop in and make everything better. That would insult my readers and sends them the message that they do not have control over their own destinies. Reading for kids and young adults is often aspirational. I have to make sure not to take that from them when I calm the conflicts they face.
I wish I could offer some magic formula or tip for getting past this because I know I am not the only writer facing this challenge. The only thing that has helped me is by reading a lot of books to try and get a sense for how other writers tackle this. I look for how other authors bring their MG and YA characters back from despair and horrific situations. Unfortunately, this approach is not a fail-safe solution. Even after reading brilliant examples from Junot Diaz, Rita Williams-Garcia, Matt De La Pena and others, I struggle. Since each story has unique barriers for each of my characters, I don't anticipate this aspect of story-telling getting any easier. Good story-telling is like solving a puzzle but before you can do so, you have to create all the puzzle pieces yourself. Along the way I have to develop the setting, supporting characters and abilities in my main character that equips them to resolve whatever I unleash on them. Sometimes this means going back and writing something earlier in the story that turns into a tool they can use later. Other times it takes redeveloping or creating a character to be part of the resolution, while still honoring my protagonist as the ultimate hero of the story.
These techniques don't always come as a clear path to the right answer and it can lead to frustration and writers' block, which are fueled by my fear of failing to write a good story. That is most often my biggest obstacle. That is why stories take time. They are rarely linear and smooth, which reflects life and makes writing one of my biggest headaches and passions all in one. But, it also means that I will keep growing as a writer and appreciate stories that much more, which is not only exciting but also a great consolation.