Philippa Ballantine is a fantasy writer hailing from Wellington, New Zealand. In the coming year she will have three books hitting the real and virtual shelves. The first of which a supernatural fantasy, Geist from Ace Books will available in late October 2010—just in time for Halloween. Find out more just how much torment she puts her characters through at booksoftheorder.com and pjballantine.com
I have been accused of many things in my time thus far as a writer (I like to think that there is something wrong if the finger is not being pointed at you). The most common one is being mean/cruel/evil towards my characters.
Now when this accusation was first levelled at me I was actually a little hurt. I mean all writers fall in love with their characters—just a bit. Even if they don’t do what you want them to all the time, and aren’t necessarily perfect, you still need to have some affection for your characters. Even you are doing an anti-hero, like Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights (who happened to be my favourite character I loved/hated as a teenager) there is still some small kernel of appreciation for who they are, and why they are like they are.
And nobody wants to hurt someone they love—unless they are truly unpleasant.
However, at the end of the day, this is what writers do. But it is not because we are cruel (well, no more so than your average person). It is all for something even more important than character: the story itself.
As I said in a recent podcast interview—although it might be pleasant for the character to sit on a balcony eating grapes and being content with their lot—it tends to make for a fairly unappealing—and short—plot.
So yes, I do torture my heroes and heroines.
But I am not the first, and definitely not the last writer to do so. It’s been the stock and trade of storytellers since there were campfires and an audience. Go back to the Odyssey written by Homer. Odysseus was wandering throughout the Mediterranean for ten years after the Trojan War, his crew being progressively slain around him. Finally when it is just him, he makes it back to his island home, and he still has to fight off his wife’s suitors before he can even think about peeling a grape.
Sure, if you were actually Odysseus, you might be a little put out by the way life has treated you—but since he is just a fictional character it is a different story.
Putting your hero into extreme situations is a great way to not only advance the plot, but to learn more about their essential makeup. As in real life, it is in moments of stress that you find out what lies beneath veneer of a person. For example, imagine a story where a character’s plucky side-kick is kidnapped, and the odds are stacked against her getting them back. She can choose to turn away and leave her friend to her fate, or she can instead seek out help to retrieve her. Or maybe she decides to storm the hideout all by herself.
Each of these choices reveals something intrinsic about her character. She is either not much of a friend, or leader and a careful thinker, or a brave but terribly intelligent individual.
Any of these scenarios also give the writer a chance to show the abilities of the character. Is she an organiser? A planner? Or has some awesome physical skills that would put Jason Bourne to shame?
Tormenting the character is not necessarily a physical torture or challenge—it can just as easily be mental or emotional. Or if you really want to tighten the screws, all three.
Perhaps, in fact torturing the hero is not such a good name for what we do. It is introducing conflict to a character’s life—and it is conflict that makes the best stories. When the hero finally wins out against all odds we are relieved and happy.
The grande finale is that much sweeter and more satisfying. After the struggle, success is a heady thing. Just think about our friend Odysseus, we just know he really appreciates home and his wife so much more because he had to go through so much to get them back.
In our day to day lives not many of us will get to feel that sort of achievement—but then again hopefully we will not be put through as much torment as our characters. Instead we can vicariously live through them.
So I will keep piling pain and suffering onto my heroes, and know that at least some of them will live through it, and enjoy at least a moment’s rest at the end of the book.
Between the living and the dead is the Order of the Deacons, protectors of the Empire, guardians against possession, sentinels enlisted to ward off the malevolent haunting of the geists...
Among the most powerful of the Order is Sorcha, now thrust into partnership with the novice Deacon, Merrick Chambers. They have been dispatched to the isolated village of Ulrich to aide the Priory with a surge of violent geist activity. With them is Raed Rossin, Pretender to the throne that Sorcha is sworn to protect, and bearer of a terrible curse.
But what greets them in the strange settlement is something far more predatory and more horrifying than any mere haunting. And as she uncovers a tradition of twisted rituals passed down through the dark reaches of history, Sorcha will be forced to reconsider everything she thinks she knows.
And if she makes it out of Ulrich alive, what in Hell is she returning to?