A Duel Upon the Razor’s Edge: The Universe Hates You and Everyone You Ever Loved

We’ve all had those days, and don’t you pretend otherwise- you know the ones. Where every setback seems to fall away just so two more can kick you in the squishiest part of your nether regions, and everyone you meet seems a cold, unfeeling monument to the indifference of existence; in short, the kind of day that makes referring to people with phrases like ‘cold, unfeeling monument to the indifference of existence’ seem reasonable. Then you wake up the next morning, look back on it, and realize, “Actually, it was astoundingly dumb of me to flip out because they ran out of my favorite coffee flavor, that cab driver was probably just in a hurry and I think I saw someone in both seats, and that dog definitely didn’t choose to poop right there on purpose five hours in advance.” There’s nothing admirable about that day in retrospect, other than the fact that other people put up with your shit as stoically as they did- what heroes! But you definitely wouldn’t want to write (or worse yet, read!) a story in which the protagonist sees the universe itself as an enemy- especially not when it actually is!

I know a thing or two about overreacting, believe you me- it might even be said I specialize in it- and while it’s a pretty irritating character trait, you can work around it to the point where it becomes weirdly endearing (in a book, not reality.) But for the love of (deity here), do not pit the entirety of space and time against your protagonist. Soap operas are moronic enough in their proper place at the worst part of TV Town. No one is going to take your main character’s unending struggle seriously, not even if you’re writing about someone with depression. Your story still needs to go somewhere, it still needs to move. Maybe some writers enjoy reading twenty pages of infinite misery with no meaning, maybe that strikes them as a clever allegory for the futility of existence, and it’s their business if they feel like being pretentious on a cosmic scale. Most of us would rather read something else.

On which note, a heroine doesn’t need to start her adventure in the fantasy world of Tropestal by getting raped to motivate her, which is an idea so creepy it sounds like a sex predator thought it up in the first place! Can we get that out of the way right now? In fact, stop having your characters sexually violated in general- it almost never adds anything and it’s the epitome of creative bankruptcy, when even torturing them isn’t needlessly disgusting enough. I’m fucking serious this time, and you know I am because I said fucking serious with full awareness of the horrid irony there. Unless your story intends to deal with the consequences of sexual assault in a mature fashion and there was no other way to get the result you wanted, leave that shock-value shuckstery for the most stereotypically incompetent of the fan-fiction throng. Heroines can have the same motivations as the men, damn it all- how about maybe, just maybe, her reason is simply that she wants to move up in the flippin’ world, like every human being wants to at some point? Maybe she just doesn’t feel like being someone’s wallflower, and that’s all the reason she needs to train. As a writer, it shouldn’t be that hard for you to convey a character’s conviction in order to make that resolve hit home.

In the same vein, your male leads don’t need to go through massive trauma in order to take charge. If anything, the trauma in both cases should come because of the hero/heroine’s efforts to move up in the world. Powerful people have absolutely Shelobian webs of spies, informers and general ne’er-do-wells at their fingertips, and if young Liss is already too capable to deal with, maybe targeting some of her friends first would be a good start. But please make sure that your villains target the heroine because she’s a threat, not just because they’re evil. That’s just cheap. Being cheap is a bad trait even for villains, since bribery, intimidation and world domination all take a chunk out of the ol’ giant pilfered hoard- you as a writer should definite not be cheap. Unless we’re talking about everything other than the way you write, since most of us have rocky starts and being frugal never hurts when you want to avoid starving.

Following on from that, please, please, please avoid suddenly taking away your character’s happiness just because. People have all sorts of connections beyond just their friends, and if you can write coherent characters of the sort people won’t like seeing hurt, the kind your readers want to succeed, then I know you’re talented enough to write ways to get them into action that don’t revolve around suddenly obliterating everything they worked so hard for. Are you Grand Moff Tarkin now? Do you like seeing entire worlds shattered purely to make a point? Does suffering amuse you? I’ll grant you the last one (sometimes) since Schadenfreude is a long-standing human tradition and I won’t dare assault its status, but otherwise, please keep that out of your writing. Paladin Varstal doesn’t need to have his entire order destroyed just to make him chase down and kill the evil necromancer Grusa Gravada- Varstal’s a paladin, offing necromancers is 9/10ths of his job description! Admiral Janine Darrows doesn’t need to see the entire 9th Heavy Frigate Wing destroyed to drag her into the war- she’s an Admiral, she’s supposed to fight with that huge, massive and massively glittery shock fleet SolFed High Command gave her, not just fly them on parade routes around the core system!

Last of all, but most assuredly not least- yes, sometimes bad things happen in real life, and so making bad things happen in your writing is critical to letting your readers engage in it properly. Having absolutely nothing bad happen to your protagonists will make them static, flat and unlikable just as surely as murdering their parents, giving their dogs cancer and burning their villages down after stabbing their girlfriends/boyfriends. But all writing is toeing a line between the accepted and the rejected, which you knew full well when you got into it. The same reason you won’t endorse racism, sexism or elitism in your writing (I hope), and the same skills that allow you to address them without getting riddled with Flak, are the reason and skills that will let you trod on this particular razor without bifurcating your big toe. So try to avoid the extremes, unless you really need to use them.

Because otherwise, Karma might send an asteroid to smash your house, shortly before the encroaching zombie horde eats your entire extended family and a freak thunderstorm catches you out on the highway in a convertible. Don’t give the universe ideas.

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