Thursday, June 23, 2011

Why I Write About Characters Taking Risks

When I was a kid, my dad was something of a fantasy nerd. And a computer nerd. As a result, I grew up on video games like ULTIMA, MIGHT AND MAGIC, and WIZARDRY.

Well, less WIZARDRY because the one game I tried in that series, you could save the game, but if your characters died, that was it. They were dead. I did not like that.

See, I anthropomorphize and personify things like nobody's business. I could tell you about the legions of stuffed animals I kept as a kid, even when they turned old and ratty, because I couldn't stand to hurt their feelings by throwing them away. But I won't. This time.

But all that to say, I really felt for the characters in those games. I couldn't stand to see them get hurt. One of my earliest games was ULTIMA: EXODUS. I honestly don't remember much about that game, because I was just a little Jodi, but I do remember having to get my characters out of the city, monsters in the wilderness, encroaching darkness . . . and how I got to the same point in the game at least four times and refused to go on, because that would mean risking my characters' lives.

Then the (virtual) world ended.

One of the important things my dad said to me was, "Save your game." I got used to doing this any time there was a monster fight. And then again after. I became a compulsive saver and eventually learned how to risk my characters' lives, because I knew I could resurrect them if it came to it, and putting the characters through all the monster-slaying and whatnot was the only way for them to level up and save the world.

When I started writing, the same thing happened. I was afraid to risk characters. I loved them! They were the children of my brain! How could I even think about hurting them? But then I realized that by doing that, I wasn't using them to their full potential. The world would end for them, just like it did for the poor characters in ULTIMA: EXODUS. If I wanted to test the characters and make the story worth experiencing, I had to learn to let them take risks.

I had to take risks in order to make the story worth reading.

So thanks, nearly traumatizing video games! Thanks to all the world-ending (though somehow it survived enough to get a sequel, in spite of the way I didn't save the world), and thanks to the characters dying everywhere. Thanks to the magic save button.

Just thinking about that, I'm inspired to let my characters take a few risks. (Maybe they'll die. Maybe they won't. Who knows!)


  1. Yay! I thought I was the only one who didn't want to hurt her stuffed animal's feelings. I was also afraid to hurt my characters in the beginning. I wanted them to have the perfect life. But like I've said before perfect is boring. LOL. Thanks for sharing, Jodi!

  2. Great post. I tend to anthropomorphize everything too. You've got a good point. And it writing, you can hit the save and rewind button. Torture away! : )

  3. Can you imagine the two of us playing video games together as kids... we'd be the worst dynamic duo ever given that you couldn't stand to risk your characters and I hated killing my enemies because I figured they were hapless individuals drafted into a cause they had no control over.

  4. J.A. - Dude, I am so glad I'm not the only one with the stuffed animals thing. My mom tells me they used to take over half my bed when I was little, but I still wouldn't let them go.

    Lynne - The save and rewind is the only thing that keeps me going sometimes. I need to know they COULD be safe. :)

    Kathleen - I didn't have enough brain to think that about the enemies. I assumed they were all just mindless monsters out to get me. (But in most games, they were just monsters.)

  5. Aww, poor little traumatized Jodi!!!!! But I've felt similarly about story-telling, natch. Especially as a kid--a not happy ending or bitter-sweet ending would DESTROY me for weeks after I read/saw it. BUt then I go and become a writer... and slowly take an ever-increasing delight in putting my characters in potentially deadly & world-ending situations!!!!!!

    I'm sure a psychoanalyst would read something into this turnaround of power dynamics....! ;)

  6. Heather - Oh yes, I can think of one ambiguous ending I read as a kid that just left me pulling my hair with worry. (The Giver.)

    At least we only hurt people made of fiction. And sometimes they get kissing scenes to make up for it.

  7. I felt the same way about my stuffed animals and any little figurine knick knack I had. And there are books I have thrown across the room when they kill off a fave character. I guess I'm just a die hard HEA fan.

  8. Julie - It's really nice not being the only one who felt that way about her stuffed animals and knick knacks!