There’s a scene in one of the Harry Potter books in which Ginny Weasley looks up from her seat in the Great Hall and remarks, “There’s Harry. He’s covered in blood. Why is he always covered in blood?”
She’s exaggerating a bit, but just a bit. When he’s not actually bleeding, Harry is suffering a searing pain in his scar, a broken arm or a smashed nose, not to mention assorted psychological tortures. There’s a reason for his torment. There’s also a reason that magic potions taste like pus and earwax instead of lemonade, and that Rowling’s other series’ hero, Cormoran Strike, has an ill-fitting prosthetic leg. It’s the same reason, and it’s one all writers need to understand.
I’ll tell you what that is in just a moment. First I want to cite His Holiness, Mark Twain. “The writer’s job,” he famously said, “is to chase characters up a tree and throw rocks at them.” By dropping them into situations of conflict, we strip away the social masks and force their true selves, the way a gardener forces a bulb. Characters cannot rise to a challenge that never comes. Until they are tested, they can neither succeed nor fail; they cannot change, and change is essential in fiction.
Life is a struggle; all grownups know that. Fiction must be as well, or readers will not care or engage. We need protagonists who are passionately invested in some enterprise, something they need to achieve or avert despite all obstacles. The novel is a chronicle of that battle.
As readers we know this. We expect conflict and trouble in fiction; we demand it. And it needs to come, not all at once, but throughout the story. Imagine this alternative version of The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy lands safely in Oz. Instead of taking the ruby shoes from the witch she killed, she receives them as a gift. The Munchkins tell her that in order to get home, she needs to see the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy follows the yellow brick road and meets many helpful people on her journey. They point out the way and give her whatever she needs. After a pleasant walk, Dorothy arrives in Oz and is taken at once to see the wizard. He listens to her story and agrees to send her back to Kansas. Following his instructions, Dorothy clicks her shoes together and is instantly transported home.
Do you love it? Of course not. You may even be asleep by now. Without its dangers and challenges, Dorothy’s journey would have been long forgotten. She might as well have stayed home.
So here is the reason Harry’s always covered in blood, and I’ll thank you to remember where you heard it: In fiction, every gain needs to come at a cost.
Dickens knew that. Tolkien knew it, too; and Rowling’s got it down in spades. By the time Harry Potter has to battle his nemesis, he’s acquired great abilities and knowledge, every bit of which cost him dearly, with the costs escalating throughout the series. Harry can read the enemy’s mind—but to do so he must bare his own mind to assault. When he needs essential information, it’s obtainable—but it costs the life of a key ally. He’s given the means to defeat his enemy—but only if he’s willing to die in the process.
Nothing comes for free (except this blog).
So here’s the takeaway for writers. I teach writing, and before that I was a literary agent for 14 years, so I’ve read a ton of beginner fiction. One of the most common weaknesses lies in the writers’ tendency to smooth the way for their protagonists. If a detective needs information, someone’s sure to volunteer it. If our hero is stranded on a mountaintop, help will arrive in a four-wheel drive. If his house were on fire, the heavens would open in a dowsing rain. These authors are benevolent gods.
But that is not what fiction needs. To be kind to their readers, writers must often be hard on their characters. I’m not suggesting that there’s no place in fiction for good luck or gratuitous kindness: a gift of information, aid, comfort. But how much more powerful are those moments if everything else is hard-won? Don’t present your characters with gifts on a platter. Make them work for everything they get, make them pay a price; and readers will love them for it.
This is one in a series of posts on the craft of fiction writing. Here are some others: The Biology of Fiction; Game of Words; Settings; and What Writers Can Learn From Game of Thrones. You can subscribe to this blog via links to right and above. For more information about my online writing workshops, visit my website. And finally: if you or anyone on your Christmas list has a taste for literary mayhem, may I recommend A DANGEROUS FICTION?