The topic of today’s post might qualify as cheap in view of the fact that I’m writing about topics like hunger, thirst and sleep-deprivation on the grounds that I’m sleep-deprived. Brilliant return to the blog, I know. I offer you only my best. Still, I hope that if you bear with me you’ll realize I’ve got a decent point.
The main characters in most stories have a binary energy level. Either they’re operating at flank speed, steaming forth to brush aside the world with the steel prows of their faces, or they’ve been beaten to a bloody pulp and have nothing left to give. There is no in between. Tiredness is no more than an occasional plot device. I don’t meant that they always have the energy to succeed, but that they fail with remarkable vitality. Defeat comes purely because they lack the skill or strength or wit to wring victory out of the wet rag of circumstance. Again, I’ve had very little sleep, so you’ll just have to tolerate these abominable metaphors.
I’m not suggesting that you have your protagonist stumble through the world in a permanent haze of hypercaffeinated exhaustion. Or at any rate, don’t keep reminding the readers of that. Yes, we’re all aware that Sali Witherbight is attending Wizard College and Fall Finals are coming up and there’s a rumor that the Masters have a sphinx on hand to eat any students who don’t perform well, but every sentence does not need to start, “Sali blinked and yawned and scrubbed at her eyes, but she couldn’t clear the fuzz from them as if it were the foam atop a potion.”
Once at the start of the chapter is fine. Then you hint at it. Don’t state outright that Sali’s not in her right mind over and over again. Clip her sentences, mention how she can’t seem to tune out the jingle-jangle of Wenra Yellowvale’s hair-bangles. Then she realizes that Wenra’s robes don’t match her socks, and they haven’t matched the entire semester. Sali tries to focus on the professor, but all she can do is see how squat and pallid the little gnome bastard is. Show her thinking she should be shocked at her sudden racist burst, but somehow unable to care beyond being angrier at every prick in the room.
Sleep deprivation can cause psychosis, after all. I myself am prone to thinking “Damn you all to Hell” at people filling a line I have to wait in when sleep-deprived. I did it this morning, in fact. I don’t actually want them to go to Hell, but normally I’m too patient even to consider it. Normally I get that they don’t want to wait in line either. That’s the point of this post: one of the many ways in which characters across fiction tend to diverge from us squishy real-o-folk is that they don’t get thrown off their normal the way we do.
Oh, sure, when his parents are suddenly murdered in front of him we get to see Generic Fantasy Protagonist #191 respond in the expected manner, but it’s such a Fantasy-protagonist issue. It’s not that we don’t feel terrible for him, assuming he’s well-written and likable at any rate, but we’re aware on some level that this isn’t a problem that happens to us. (Yes, folks lose their parents in reality, but having them actually killed in front of you falls firmly in the, “Always someone else” category of the brain. Technically possible, but extremely rare and so horrifying we choose to think it isn’t.)
I don’t have to know anything about you to say with absolute certainty that you’re not happy with the amount of sleep you got this week. It may only be a bit less than you wanted, but you still didn’t get it. Depending on what exactly you do and what standard you hold yourself to, you may notice it a little less or a hell of a lot more. If you have Autism, as I do, and the attendant uncomfortable level of body awareness it rams into your already-overstuffed grey matter, you can’t help but be more aware when things aren’t up to spec. Even if you don’t, if you really care about what you’re working on and want to give it your best then you can’t escape the nagging awareness that you’re not quite running on all cylinders.
Now, here’s where this gets really crucial for you as a writer. You can beat endless shades and hues of snot and bile and blood from your characters. You can drive them into the dirt, then press them deeper with each blow until their chapped lips graze bedrock. You can reduce them to nothing more than husks driven on by a flicker-wisp of inner fire. But you will never make your keener readers forget that ultimately, you have arranged this. It’s all part of your grand design. These kinds of hammer-blow methods can make fun reading for the inner sadist we all harbor, but they have one serious flaw in getting your ideas across.
Your readers know that you’ve specifically written things this way. What makes a survivor inspiring in reality is that idle circumstance inflicts hardship, or the conscious actions of real (and really asinine) people on the ones who survive it. There’s no machination or contrivance to it. In fiction your readers know that you’re writing your character as having things hard to make your point. Ultimately it comes down to, “This person I made up has things way harder than you do! Be impressed!” It’s a circular argument. The worldview of the book is correct because the character goes through the grinder, and the character goes through the grinder because it’s demanded by the worldview of the book.
Here’s a notion for you: most people don’t drink remotely enough water. Many of us spend our days in a state of persistent mild dehydration, and we completely fail to realize it. Now, consider books. You’ll see many characters starving, because hunger is a sharp pang that we just can’t ignore. It keeps us awake if we don’t sate it, and greets us in the morning no matter how we stuff ourselves at night. In this way it also links itself closely to sleep. The need for each reminds us of the other. But unless Hardbitten Survivor #227 is specifically shown in an arid environment or on a scorching summer day, I promise you you’ll barely hear any complaint about thirst. We get used to being a little bit thirsty, so we don’t think to include it.
None of us get enough sleep, that’s universally acknowledged. So why do we never write about sleep-deprived characters? Re-read the first sentence of this paragraph. There’s your answer. Everyone’s undersleeping to one extent or another. All of us are tired all the time because it’s demanded by our society. Even though every aspect of human science from psychology to medicine tells us that we need sleep, that we can’t function without it, we’re used to not getting it. It’s taken me twice as long to write this far because I lost four hours of sleep last night. My sword practice will happen at a fraction of its normal intensity and I’m sure most of my strokes will be little better than flailing. Even going to bed will be unpleasant because I’m effectively too tired to relax easily.
There are a hundred other little touches. A sore wrist from trying to open a door at the wrong angle or an awkward turn when getting off the bus. Blood under a toenail from a stub while staggering drunk a few nights back. Heroic characters aren’t heroic without the great hardships, but a hero can’t inspire if he doesn’t even come across as human. Crushing blows show us the hero’s strength, but without knowing he’s just a man that strength can only ever be expected. Don’t worry about me, though. I’m the villain. I have nothing to prove. Why else would I write about being tired all the time when we’re all tired all the time?
Well, you know what they write: write what you know.