Several years ago, I had a book doctor look at one of my novels. After she read it, she called me.
“You must be a very nice person,” she said.
We had never met. All she knew about me was that I had written a book about a fat girl.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Well,” she said. “You don’t like bad things to happen to your characters.”
That sentence alone, I realized, was worth her fee. Like a mother who always prided herself on turning in pot handles, plugging up the electrical outlets, and covering the sharp corners of the square coffee table, I was routinely trying to safeguard my fictional characters from harm. In other words, I was doing exactly what a writer should never do. I thanked her for uncovering a major weakness in my writing.
Writing involves conflict. Things have to go wrong, at least before they go right. Your characters have to get in trouble. They have to make the wrong decisions. They have to screw up. They have to fail. They have to get their hearts broken and their ribs cracked, they have to cheat on tests, they have to cheat on their lovers, they have to get drunk and get high and then get into their cars and drive, even the wrong way into oncoming traffic. Yes, the characters are your children, but you have to cast them out into the world you created for them and watch their lives unfold without hovering over them like helicopter parents.
It’s still not easy for me. I can’t create characters I don’t love. And if I love them, I want to protect them. But kids have to get colds and flu to challenge and build up their immune systems, so writers shouldn’t fear the Ebola virus, at least on the printed page. You want your readers to bite their nails and feel their hearts pounding, even if yours is slamming too.
Deborah's latest young adult novel, "The Lifeguard," will be published in March of 2012 by Albert Whitman & Co.