The world offers countless insights, experiences, lifestyles, and morals for “writer’s fodder”. We, as writers, decide on a genre and a place, and have a good idea of what our protagonist is like. Typically we know if they will be male or female right away, and then based off of that knowledge we begin to envision what they might look like and act like. Are they nice? Do they have a rebellious streak in them? All of these basic characteristics are only the beginning to building the compelling character.
Hopefully, before we get too far, we have a conflict in mind. We know what we want them to struggle with, or we know how we want to at least begin or end their story. Or maybe we have the middle figured out a bit, just not the essential beginning and end.
For example, the very first scene I had envisioned with my story of Lord Konstantine, I had him running through a dark forest being chased by some dude with a sword. And then I almost killed him. It was perfect. Except, who was the dude? Why was he chasing him? Where is the dark forest? And why do I even care about Konstantine?
It’s at that moment that a writer gets down to business. We begin to play with ideas of the Why and How, and even have fun with the Who. The Where is easy, as long as we remember where Where was.
As we develop story, conflict, and plot, we are also adding more to our characters. How do they react when this happens to them? Do they lash out or crawl away into a corner? How does the conflict change them, and why? Did they need that change, or was it inevitable and a negative consequence?
It’s around this point that we have delved deep into our character and are deciding on what kind of personality we want to surface. What impulses do they have, and is it evil or good? What is their weakness that creeps up on them? What kind of strength do they have and how can we test them?
And what about the antagonist? Here, things get almost fun. Instead of balancing that good with weakness or failings, the antagonist gets to be pure evil, or at least mostly pure evil. What use is there to making the reader pity the bad guy and begin to hate the good guy? Fail! No, instead, the antagonist is evil and we must make sure he/she stays that way. So what is their personality? What do they do that makes them so hateful? How do they react and how do they see things in life? What makes them evil?
It’s here that a writer must begin to make the hard decisions that I, personally, struggle with from time to time. Where is that line that a writer will not cross? In order to make a compelling story, and compelling characters, we must write about events or issues that are uncomfortable, or perhaps even disturbing. And if we don’t write it in detail, but allude to it, inside our brains we have already played it out and have the answers needed in case the How, Why, or Who questions come up.
Depending on the genre, and depending on the age group, we have to decide how far we want to go. In my story with Konstantine, I decided to start out the book with showing the death of his father, twenty years prior. From here, I made the tough decision to write in the viewpoint of my antagonist. In other words, I wrote in the viewpoint of the murderer. It made me sick to my stomach, especially since at first I didn’t hold much back. I ended up permanently deleting the last line because it was too heartless and cold, and it made me sick. However, I decided not to change my viewpoint. Why? Why not, I ask? A book is supposed to compel the reader and change their lives, even if the book has no ulterior motive to change them. If I keep my book happy and good, then it just makes the reader feel good and as if they had just eaten a yummy cake with chocolate frosting, and maybe some sprinkles to make it look happier (now I’m hungry!).
As hard as it is, we must make these decisions. What kind of consequence do we want on our readers? Yes, J. R. R. Tolkien never wrote in the viewpoint of the enemy in Lord of the Rings, but he certainly painted a dark picture of what they were life. My reason for writing in my antagonist’s viewpoint was to ensure the reader felt the evil. Is that wrong? I have come to say that, for me, it is not. I want a connection with the antagonist, even if it’s the type of connection that leaves the reader feeling disgusted or hateful towards the bad guy. Now, I only hope I did a good job.
So, this question that we have of how far to go before we’ve crossed a line, is purely individual. I’ve read books where scenes are explicit and just too much knowledge for me. I get the idea without going into two pages worth of it, but the writer decided that going through each detail was important to them to bring the reader in on a certain level. I trust my readers that they don’t need to know how characters make love, or just how evil and dark a character can be by walking them through each detail of a murder. My murder scene in the beginning focused on how the antagonist felt, not how it looked or how the murdered felt. I think I may have lost my lunch for good if I did that.
For my fellow writers out there, do you have lines that you won’t cross in writing? And for the readers, which also includes writers, is there a line where you won’t read?