I don't know what it is about my authors and torturing their characters (see also guest blog by Diana Pharaoh Francis), but when it comes right down to it, I have some of the best in the field. Case -in-point, David Mack, my guest-blogger today and, oh, everything he's ever written. His latest, on sale today(!) is Star Trek: Typhon Pact — Zero Sum Game, which he'll be giving away signed and personalized to one lucky commenter on this blog. Looking for a modern Machiavelli? One has to look no further than David Mack. I say this, mind you, with all affection.
Whom Authors Would Destroy…by David Mack
Authors are the gods of their original fictional universes, and in the ones over which I reign supreme, there is no fate more terrible than to be my favorite character.
Some authors treat their favorite characters with kid gloves, always crafting tales in which they emerge victorious and escape the most horrible possible consequences of their adventures, whether by luck, wit, or prowess. I am not one of those writers. To be my favorite character in any story is to have a target painted on one’s head. You can always tell which characters I love most by seeing which ones I afflict most cruelly.
It’s an old habit of mine. It can be seen in full effect in my first full-length novel, Wildfire. Almost every principal or recurring character in that story who isn’t slain outright is put through a living hell. One loses a hand, two witness the deaths of their best friends, and a doctor is forced to consider euthanizing dozens of her patients to spare them an even worse fate. The most tragic outcome, however, is reserved for the main character, who loses the love of her life and succumbs to an emotional breakdown in the tale’s final scene.
Yes, I am a heartless bastard. I call it “being a writer.”
As most professional authors already know, the engine that drives narratives is conflict, and the higher the stakes, the greater the dramatic tension. One of my pet peeves, however, is when characters who thumb their noses at Death and his fellow horsemen of the Apocalypse never see the dice come up snake eyes. Characters who always win might satisfy some readers’ appetites for escapist wish-fulfillment, and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone for preferring stories with happy endings. Even I have indulged in feel-good endings, from time to time.
But my fictional universes tend to be just a bit more treacherous than that.
Case in point: A few months ago, I found myself struggling to outline a compelling story for a new Star Trek Vanguard novella. None of the stories I concocted seemed consequential; I wasn’t sure why any of them would matter to the overall continuing saga or have any resonance within their own pages. Then I had a flash of inspiration: while listening to an epic and tragic piece of music from Hans Zimmer’s score for Inception, I envisioned a majestic, cinematic moment of tragedy, one that would shatter my favorite character in both body and spirit, perhaps forever.
In that moment, I knew I had a story.
Go ahead, say it. … It’s okay, I already know it to be true: I’m a bastard.
I suspect there are readers and editors who hope that one day I will exorcise this unrepentant sadism from my authorial nature and stop brutalizing my characters. On the other hand, I know there are probably just as many who would prefer I continue to bring down the hammer in the name of drama.
Over the past few years, a few readers have asked me if I ever feel guilty about my acts of narrative savagery. They seem surprised when I answer, “No.”
Such queries make me think of people who stare at their TV screens during 24-hour coverage of great calamities—flooded cities, towns erased by volcanic ash or mudslides, countries torn by war, passenger jets reduced to burning wreckage strewn across verdant fields or swallowed by murky seas, reports of children abducted and slain—and wonder what sort of deity would afflict us with such an unrelenting circus of horrors. When I ponder the arbitrary injustices and random miseries of the real world, my fictional nightmares pale by comparison.
All I can say is this: If there is a God, for all our sakes let us hope He is not by nature a dramatist — and let’s also hope we’re not His favorite characters in this universe.