When is it Too Far?

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dios4vida
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When is it Too Far?

Post by dios4vida » March 30th, 2012, 11:24 am

Hey folks.

So I've been wondering something for a while. Most of us have heard the advice of pushing your character to their limits, and beyond, to keep the stakes high and our readers turning pages. This is all well and good. But what's the point where it goes too far?

In Vegas several of us were discussing Jim Butcher's series The Dresden Files. Some of us, like myself, love the books. They get hard to read sometimes, but I always go back for more because I love Harry Dresden and how he can overcome anything the world throws at him. I feel like his dedication and belief that good will prevail are wonderful, admirable qualities and I love to watch him win when all seems lost.

Others felt the opposite. They couldn't stand watching the terrible things Butcher does to Harry Dresden, feeling that there was no hope. Knowing that in each book Harry would be beaten and pushed beyond his limits was just too much for them. They stopped reading the series.

(Incidentally our positions were swapped on some other books, where I couldn't bear what was done while others loved it, but that's beside the point.)

This got me thinking of how two people can read the same thing; one sees hope and victory against all odds, another sees hopelessness and senseless beating of characters. And then, the question: where was that line, that one person was safely behind while another was too far on the other side for comfort?

When do you feel that enough is enough? What's the point for you that it just gets too hard, too terrible, too brutal on the characters to continue reading? Are there certain things that you just can't sit by and watch happen, or is it in the tone, or the attitude?

But also, what are some terrible things that have been done to characters you love that worked? What made them work for you?
Brenda :)

Inspiration isn't about the muse. Inspiration is working until something clicks. ~Brandon Sanderson

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Re: When is it Too Far?

Post by Mark.W.Carson » March 30th, 2012, 2:12 pm

Odd that I am going to use this as an example, but a web comic that I follow, lfgcomic.com is funny, whimsical at times, and doesn't take itself too seriously, however the Main character, Cal, is, at one point, asked to murder an innocent child in order to save potentially hundreds of thousands by saving a kingdom locked away in suspension.

The child is not real, it is the figment of a higher power testing him to see if he is ready to be a king and make the tough choices, but he doesn't know that, and there are other elements like this, where his heart breaks and other bad things happen, only to steel him towards what he must do.

It depends on you, the author, and what you are trying to do for the reader, not your character. The reader is your target, the character merely an illusion for them to be distracted by while you play their emotions like an instrument. If you do things simply to test the limits, you cease to tell a story, and you are merely playing with the reader. That gets old. Nobody wants to be played.

Take them on a journey, use all the devices you can to tell them the story, even if the choices are hard. Don't F' with the reader.

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Re: When is it Too Far?

Post by Claudie » March 30th, 2012, 5:19 pm

The problem, I think, is that there is no such lines. Or rather, the line is at a different point with every reader. If you push your characters hard, there'll always be someone to think that was too far. Do what feels right for your story, what creates a high-tension, page-turning tale. And trust your own line. It's as good a guide as any.

Another thing that contributes a lot to the hopelessness is the repetition of horrible events. One major dramatic moment is hard to live through but most readers hang out for the triumphant return. Failure and torture over failure and torture, well, it gets a bit much. The horrible moments you push on your characters are meant to push him to his limits and force him to change and overcome that limit. Not to beat him over the head with inescapable despair. Unless that was your point all along, at which point you should be aware of what you're doing.
"I do not think there is any thrill [...] like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success... Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything." -- Nikola Tesla

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Re: When is it Too Far?

Post by polymath » March 30th, 2012, 7:26 pm

I think credibility is on point for when too much hardship and heartache complication presses on a character. Also, larger-than-life comes into play. Heroes are not born, haven't been since ancient times, they are forged by events rather than the gods---knock on wood. The Chinese proverb that's a curse and a blessing says, May you live in interesting times.

Margaret Attwood wrote about Canadian literature that it is a genre of victimization or was at the time a couple decades ago when she was the grande dame of Canadian literary criticism. Her noticing that commonality redirected the nation's culture.

How much pressure does a protagonist need to be compelled to act? That's how much is enough to open a narrative. Then a middle act must escalate the pressure to an unsustainable height. Then an ending must restore emotional equilibrium to a new normal with a profound transformation of characters, certainly a protagonist, and whatever ripples that may cause to other characters, and settings, and events, and ideas, but most significantly cause a transformation for readers.

A way to test whether a narrative victimizes a protagonist too far is whether the forces in opposition are balanced. A mighty nemesis or villain requires a mighty hero to thwart his or her ambitions. The foe forges the hero. At some point a hero must act rather than be a pawn to victimization. The first half of a narrative is where a hero can be a victim. The second half is where a hero must act proactively, decisively, heroically. And contemporary heroes act self-sacrificingly for a greater good than the self.
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Re: When is it Too Far?

Post by writersink » March 31st, 2012, 6:57 am

It's a personal thing, I guess. Once I started reading a series where nothing went right for the characters. I read the first book, and at the end something terrible happened. I read the second book, and ditto. I know that cliff-hangers are supposed to build suspense and all... but after a point, I just got annoyed. More than that. I got bored. I knew that something bad was going to happen, therefore I felt as though I didn't even have to read the book. I'm sure others found that same series amazing, but I didn't.

For me, the author needs to mix it up. Have good and things bad happen, and I'll keep reading because I don't know what to expect. Otherwise, I get bored. However, this opinion changes from person to person. At the end of the day, you are the writer. It is your call. When do you think it would be too far for you? You have an answer? Good. You know when to stop. Write something you'd be willing to read, and I'm sure others will do the same. (:

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Re: When is it Too Far?

Post by Gypson » March 31st, 2012, 10:05 pm

I love seeing how a character handles stress when all his resources are stripped away and his back is up against the wall. I love watching characters overcome hardship.

But there is a point where too much is too much. If a couple of really bad things happen to a character in a book, and he responds and recovers in realistic ways, then I enjoy the ride. If Bad Situation after Bad Situation is piled onto the character one after another, without pause for recovery, then there comes a point where I disengage and stop caring. There comes a point where I cannot believe that all of these bad things happen to this one character without relief. If the heroine witnesses, say, the rape and murder of her sister, the destruction of her home, is abducted and forced to kill her parents, is used as a sex slave, is tortured, starved, left for dead, and tortured again, and now oh no she has to kill the little brother she's been hiding from the bad guys or else hundreds of people will die.....I sigh and stop believing. That is too much for one person. I don't care that some people in real life have crappy lives full of one unfortunate event after another; this is fiction and I need a bit more balance.

I also stop believing the misery when the character experiencing it does not recover, or does not recover realistically. Writing the physical, emotional, or spiritual recovery of a character opens up so many possibilities that I am somewhat insulted when a character who has experienced rape/torture/murder/what-have-you spends little time sorting out his thoughts and even less time on the road to recovery. I do not believe that a good sexual or romantic experience will negate the character's traumatic experience, or that a phobia will disappear overnight. I want to see the character suffer, heal, and discover things about himself while working toward resolving the plot. I want to see the legacy of those traumatic experiences, I want to see how they manifest in the character, how they change his world view, how they impact his interactions with others. In short, the suffering should be purposeful to the character and his story. Suffering inserted for angst or pity points does not cut it for me.

One solution to this is to vary Bad Situations with Good Situations. Some of my favorite scenes to write are the pleasant, quiet ones of recovery or companionship. It's okay to let characters breathe every now and again. If the character I'm reading about never experiences any glimmers of hope, then I tend to have little hope for the character.

Another solution to spread around the misery so no one character is bearing the brunt of it. This also helps reduce the Mary Sue problem.

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Re: When is it Too Far?

Post by AMSchilling » April 3rd, 2012, 12:15 am

Awww, darn it. You guys had a Harry Dresden pow-wow in Vegas? *jealous* LOVE that series.

I think what keeps me coming back to Butcher's books is that for the most part, there's always hope for one of the characters. Even if it's a teeny, tiny hope for happiness or peace. Probably not Harry, poor guy, but even he might get a break someday. And occassionally he's got a little bit of okay-time. A nice moment with Bob, a few jokes with Murphy...something. Plus some kick-butt magic. Even the last two, which were probably the most depressing and horrific as far as what he dealt with, had a few moments of light.

And that's also my answer to when I think it's too far: if there's no hope, no glimmer or possibility at all, it's too much. Torture the characters all you want, but give them something, a quiet moment of grace and happiness among all the crap, once in a while. Let me believe that they might get what they're looking for some day, and I'll follow along. Make it so there's not a chance they'll have any happiness and I'll toss the book across the room.

As for what I've done to my own characters? Hmmm. In the book I just finished I killed the MC's mother, made her bff devolve into a junkie, killed off the 10 yr old she spent most of the book trying to protect, and then made her boyfriend bail on her when she made a decision to get revenge for the kid's death. Oh, and I burned down significant parts of post-apoc. NYC, essentially leaving her without the place she had thought of as home. A little much? Probably for some. The ten year old is especially sucky because it's just...mean. Humanity at it's worst. But it works because the world she lives in is a nightmare, and life is about survival and not much else. She not only survives, but she gets the freedom to walk around at night without being afraid. That's something no one else has and it's a ray of hope for her that the world might be able to change.
-Amy

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Re: When is it Too Far?

Post by trixie » April 3rd, 2012, 7:03 pm

dios4vida wrote:I love Harry Dresden and how he can overcome anything the world throws at him. I feel like his dedication and belief that good will prevail are wonderful, admirable qualities and I love to watch him win when all seems lost.

Others felt the opposite. They couldn't stand watching the terrible things Butcher does to Harry Dresden, feeling that there was no hope. Knowing that in each book Harry would be beaten and pushed beyond his limits was just too much for them. They stopped reading the series.
Hi, Dios! (Yes, I realized I just said "Hi, God!" That just makes it all the more fun...)

So remember me saying I was going to get around to watching some Game of Thrones? Yeah, I started it. I'm only 3 epis in. No worries, gang. No spoilers. But this series is a great example for me of going too far. I don't mean content-wise, I mean the author giving me as a reader ZERO reason to have hope for my characters.

I hate it. But since I read the first book, I'll watch the first season. And knowing me, I'll probably watch the 2nd, just to see what happens. But I can't recommend the books to others, especially if I know they're optimistic readers (Sommer, I'm looking at you!).

I need to get behind a character and feel like I have something to cheer for. Harry Potter, Frodo, Jacob Wonderbar, whiney baby Luke Skywalker, Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre, the list goes on. I want a "good guy" (or girl!) to root for. Not a cast of characters so wide that I feel indifferent to their successes or failures.

Perhaps this got off topic and expanded to overall books or stories where the character is pushed too far. But I was there for our initial discussion about pushing your character to their limits and questioning if they did something SO entirely out of character, then are they really the characters we want to write? My MC is an 11 yr old boy. I think something he'd NEVER do is murder someone. So why would I write a scene where he does? What good does that do my story (aside from writing me into a hole and taking me clear out of MG territory!)?

I'm all for pushing characters to mental, physical, or emotional limits. And I get why it's used. So I don't mind pushing our characters "to the limit," but I do struggle with so putting so many bad/sad things in a row that even I lose hope. If I lose hope for the character, I quickly lose interest. And there are too many books in my TBR pile to spend on a hopeless character.

Wow, sorry. This got super long. Next time I'll email you. :)

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Re: When is it Too Far?

Post by Claudie » April 3rd, 2012, 10:09 pm

trixie wrote:Perhaps this got off topic and expanded to overall books or stories where the character is pushed too far. But I was there for our initial discussion about pushing your character to their limits and questioning if they did something SO entirely out of character, then are they really the characters we want to write? My MC is an 11 yr old boy. I think something he'd NEVER do is murder someone. So why would I write a scene where he does? What good does that do my story (aside from writing me into a hole and taking me clear out of MG territory!)?
Remember though that this isn't just about finding something your character would never do. There are probably lots of things your character wouldn't do. And these things, like murder, are things many people would never do. What you seek when you push your character to the limit, is something that is personal. Something that, in order to do, he'd need to relinquish an important part of who he is/was. You can't go with generic in this technique. It must be as specific and intrinsic to your character as you can make it. Otherwise he'll have done something horrible, but maybe not life-changing.

Like, say you'd roll with murder. Why murder? Has your character's parents been killed by a murderer? Has your MC killed in self-defence and swore never to do so again? Has he seen someone else be killed? What is unique to this character that'd make murder an even more horrible and terrible thing than it already is? This is why there are questions ilke "what's your character's greatest fear?" They make it personal.

(also, slightly off topic. Sorry!)
"I do not think there is any thrill [...] like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success... Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything." -- Nikola Tesla

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Re: When is it Too Far?

Post by Hillsy » April 4th, 2012, 3:54 am

dios4vida wrote:When do you feel that enough is enough? What's the point for you that it just gets too hard, too terrible, too brutal on the characters to continue reading? Are there certain things that you just can't sit by and watch happen, or is it in the tone, or the attitude?
Bit late to the party, but hey, meh (That was the written version of a facial twitch of slight embarrassment, followed by a cheeky shrug/grin combo)

Yeah, I'll nick this wholesale from Brandon Sanderson/Howard Taylor/Dan Wells (the Writing excuses podcast). It's all about the promises made to the reader, and fulfilling them. How do you make those promises? Examples and tone. You pick up something as existential as Abercrombie's the Heroes, and right off the bat you know its going to be the exact opposite to Legally Blonde 2. GRRRRRRRRRRRR Martin's work carries the same tag of unremitting coarseness. The times I've felt it to be over the top is when the author has specifically stated at the top of the book "this is going to be...." and halfway through has decided take it on a darker bent halfway through. Promises arn't being fulfilled; tone is not remaining consistent.

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Re: When is it Too Far?

Post by dios4vida » April 5th, 2012, 11:59 am

trixie wrote:Hi, Dios! (Yes, I realized I just said "Hi, God!" That just makes it all the more fun...)

So remember me saying I was going to get around to watching some Game of Thrones? Yeah, I started it. I'm only 3 epis in. No worries, gang. No spoilers. But this series is a great example for me of going too far. I don't mean content-wise, I mean the author giving me as a reader ZERO reason to have hope for my characters.
Heh. Hi to you, too, trixie (though that isn't nearly as funny). :)

I could not agree more. I have a very passionate hatred towards the Song of Fire and Ice series. That was exactly what I think of when I imagine writers going too far on the torture scale. There's no hope. At all. Everyone is miserable, they scheme, plot, murder, sulk, and remain miserable. I have no interest in things like that.

On the flip side, I finised Seanan McGuire's first October Daye novel, Rosemary and Rue, last week. Halfway through the book I thought, "man, can this woman torture her characters!" Poor Toby can't catch a break. But though it toed the line of too much, she never went over it for me. Why? Because there was still hope for Toby. She didn't have much in/for herself, but it was there, I saw it looming, and with every gunshot or whatnot I saw her emotionally get closer to that hope. It was brutal and sometimes hard to "watch" but it was an amazing novel and I'm dying to take a trip to my favorite used bookstore to pick up the next one.

So maybe that's the key, at least for me. I need some hope for my characters, that they will heal/become better people/save the world/be happier/whatnot. <shrug>

Great point, trixie!
Brenda :)

Inspiration isn't about the muse. Inspiration is working until something clicks. ~Brandon Sanderson

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Re: When is it Too Far?

Post by MattLarkin » April 5th, 2012, 12:15 pm

I could not agree more. I have a very passionate hatred towards the Song of Fire and Ice series.
I love the series (random note: it's A Song of Ice and Fire). Yeah, sometimes he kills off a beloved character. But he does an excellent job of making you empathize with almost every character. Meaning any character he kills, you feel the outrage. The deep character development and constant tension keep me hooked, wondering what's next.
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