On NOT Playing it Safe

I have a tendency to (over)protect my characters. Call it a mother hen complex, or maybe a more modern term would be helicopter novelist. I hover over my characters’ every move and the moment I sense a bad choice coming on, I swoop in and rescue them. Close call, I think, that could’ve been really bad.

Oh wait, isn’t that what’s supposed to happen?

Make your characters miserable! You hear this often as a writer. Make them hurt, bleed, fall off trucks, out of windows, walk into traffic, stumble over vibrating train tracks.

Photo Credit: ahh phooey via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: ahh phooey via Compfight cc
Only try this in fiction, please.

Often it’s metaphoric, but it can be literal (especially in the thriller and horror genre).

It makes sense because suffering adds interest, intrigue, and suspense. Playing too nice is boring, and the last thing you want is to make your reader fall asleep (the only time this is okay is if a reader conks out after staying up all night reading your book).

“Ask what the worst thing is that could happen to your protagonist and make it worse.” Classic writing advice.

Good? Yes. But be careful not to overdo it. If your character is miserable all the time, and for no good reason, it can turn your story into a different kind of (author) nightmare – predictable and annoying.

This, however, is not my problem.

My problem is playing it too safe. I rescue and avoid. I delete danger. I sense an oncoming train from miles away and I swoop in to save my character before the rails even begin to tingle.

I noticed this when I reread the first draft of my novel last year. Every time something bad was about to happen to my protagonist… it didn’t. She was always saved, either by me, or one of the other characters (um, also me). I didn’t do this consciously. I never set out to write a “safe” story, but apparently my instinct as a human being is to protect and defend. When I see danger lurking ahead I grab my characters and run for cover.

Maybe this stems from my actual mother hen instinct, which I believe can be a good thing despite the bad rap helicopter parenting gets these days.

Photo Credit: joannaro99 via Compfight cc Nobody messes with my chicks.

Photo Credit: joannaro99 via Compfight cc
Nobody messes with my chicks.

But in writing – and I’m talking fiction and creative nonfiction here (think about memoir, how tempting to write yourself in a more desirable light, to smooth out painful edges of your past) – it’s almost never a good thing.

Sometimes we must lead our most beloved characters in the path of a train or at least a fast moving cyclist.

Sometimes we must indulge their self-destructive habits, and perhaps even push them closer to temptation.

I’m keeping all this in mind as I head towards the final third of my (latest) novel draft. I have to make sure I’m not choosing the easy way out – for me or my characters.

As Miss Frizzle, the teacher and driver of The Magic School Bus, says…

“Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”

magic school bus

Pretty great advice for writing, and for living.

Are there times in your writing when you play it too safe? Or do you fall on the other side of the spectrum?

If you’re not sure, take this fun quiz by author and blogger Janice Hardy: “Do you Suffer From NWS (Nice Author Syndrome)?

typewriter-butterflies-badge-small

I’m joining the lovely Maddy over at Writing Bubble for her weekly link up, What I’m Writing. There are some great posts this week on Setting and Story Structure, as well as one writing mama’s list of Editing Essentials (hint, coffee is high on the list, and I must concur).

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