Heartbreak … it’s inevitable in this life.
Muse: Unless you’re a pyschopath.
Are you implying something?
Muse (whistling innocently): No, not all.
When I think about heartbreak, I think about disappointment, but magnified. Most folks have experienced it at some point, whether it’s the job you didn’t get, the prize you didn’t win, or that time the Covid shutdown kept you from that dream vacation you’d been planning for years. The worst instances, though, are the ones between people.
So I should I be surprised one of my characters broke my heart?
In a short story I am currently writing, I had a plan for the plot right from the beginning. Point A to Point B, to Point C, and so on, all the way to Point Z, the story’s close. Somewhere around Point Q, I had one of the main characters do something absolutely devastating to the protagonist.
That was the plan, anyway.
The problem is, as I started writing this story, I became invested in the arc between the protagonist and this other character. I was not only enjoying their interactions and their relationship, I was also starting to like the other character. I began thinking of them as a co-protagonist. And then I reached that point in the story.
And I froze up.
I didn’t want the character to do that horrific action any more. Was it consistent with their personality? Yes, basically, since they were someone who acted out of anger without thinking things through. Was this bad deed consistent with the rest of the plot? Yeah—it was pivotal, in actuality. But I didn’t want that character to do it anymore. I had grown to like them, you see, and the idea of a character I like following through with the planned action made me uncomfortable.
I scoured my brain, looking for a way out. Sure, there are things I could write in place of that event that would be less ugly and make the character look better. But anything I could think of would have soft-pedalled the conflict. Without that terrible issue between the protagonist and the character to resolve, the emotional impact of the story’s peak would have been diluted, lessened.
* * * * *
Some authors and readers would argue that the author is in total control of what happens on the page. I agree to a point. In a logical way, I think that’s correct. Rational thought serves humanity very well when it comes to day-to-day living and making life-altering decisions. The people who navigate these things the best are usually the ones who apply reason and common sense.
But art is not about logic. Creating a story is not about logic, at least not one-hundred percent. There is a lot of emotion tied up in it and emotion, simply-put, isn’t logical. When we talk about something being a “passion” or a “labor of love,” we’re not talking about being rational. We’re pouring our joy, angst, excitement, and despondency into our creations.
In short, we’re making them human.
And I think we’re built to be attracted to other humans. I don’t mean sexually or romantically, but in a “part of the herd” kind of way. We empathize. We feel bad when our friends are having a hard time, or sad when we see people suffering. Feelings don’t do anything concrete but it’s a natural reaction, as part of our shared humanity.
Artists are sometimes stereotyped as moody. Are they artists because they’re moody? Or did pouring their humanity and emotions into their work make them moody?
Muse: Are you saying this is why a lot of the classic writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Sylvia Plath drank and did drugs?
I’ve written characters to whom I’ve felt little attachment. I’ve also killed off characters I loved and while I won’t go so far as to say it hurts, it does darken my mood a bit, to literally murder my creations.
In one of his Castle Perilous books, John Dechancie wrote several characters trying to concoct a spell to summon a spaceship that could travel dimensions. The first try brought them the time machine from the H.G. Wells book of the same name. One character remarked that it must have been a prop cast-off by the studio but the second stated that would mean the spell cheated; that it had delivered a working dimensional transport (time being a dimension) and that in a multiverse with infinite possibilities, somewhere there was a dimension where the man himself was the fiction, and the creations of Wells were reality, which would mean the time machine worked, and fulfilled the spell’s parameters.
If that logic holds, in some corner of the multiverse, exists a world where Jonathan Pembroke is unknown and my creations are the reality and the horrible things that befall them really happened and I’m responsible for all their pain and misery. Or am I? Did I just channel it—tap into some universal consciousness to see it unfold? Or did my imagination spawn a dimension where it happened? The metaphysics of that concept really make my head spin.
And this is where the heartbreak comes in. Through whatever mechanism—whether something extra-physical, my active emotions, or even just pride in my creations—I’m tied to them. And when the ones I like do awful things, even thought it’s my own fault, it hurts to watch.
* * * * *
In the end, I had to let the character go through with it. It wasn’t pleasant but without that element to the plot, the last third of the tale just peters out. It wasn’t what I wanted but I had to let it happen. It’s a feeling akin to standing by and watching your adult child make (what you know will be) a horrible decision and not being able to do anything. Not as severe but along the same axis. Lesser heartbreak is still heartbreak … even when you do it to yourself.
And with that, I think I actually need a drink.
(Note: the above is a bit hyperbolic but has a grain of truth. I didn’t cry or break down in depression after writing the end of the referenced tale, but it did sour my mood for a while. I didn’t see any way to both avoid it and keep the integrity of the story. I hated saddling the character with that action and subsequent guilt over it—which, as they are a part of me, I got to share. No pain, no gain, I suppose. I won’t lie: I am trying to justify writing a brief redemption arc but I may just do it in my head, for my own satisfaction.)