When Bad Things Happen To Good Characters

It looks like a significant majority of our readers prefer posts that are educational, help them make informed choices about their reading/viewing material, and/or provoke discussion. Tough cookies. You’re getting a story today.
on Jul 24, 2012 · No comments

Apologies for my absence last week. Real life happened, as it does every so often. Anyhow, with regard to the survey I posted two weeks ago, it looks like a significant majority of our readers prefer posts that are educational, help them make informed choices about their reading/viewing material, and/or provoke discussion.

Tough cookies. You’re getting a story today. Who knows? Perhaps it will provoke discussion.


Welcome to the Quill and Scroll, a quiet little pub nestled somewhere deep in the misty moorlands of an anonymous author’s imagination, where his characters hang out when he’s asleep or otherwise not engaged in writing his current literary masterpiece-in-progress. It’s lit by flickering candles and lanterns suspended from the open-beam ceiling, and furnished with tables and chairs of rough-hewn oak. The walls are smeared with smoke-stained plaster. A colorful tapestry depicting a company of hunters stalking through the woods adorns one side wall, and there’s a dartboard on the other. Five darts are embedded in that wall, forming a rough circle around the target. At the far end of the room, there’s a bone-handled stiletto stuck a full two inches into the mantel of the crackling fireplace, below a row of pewter tankards. Nobody knows how or why the knife got there, and nobody has ever bothered to retrieve it.

A stout, black-robed man with glowing green eyes, a pointed goatee streaked with gray, and a jagged scar running diagonally across his face enters the tavern and waves jovially at the barkeep.

Greskarg: “Pint of dark ale, Dave.”

He takes a seat at the bar beside a muscular blond woman in chain mail and leather with a broadsword strapped to her back. On the stool next to her is a tall man with an aquiline nose whose generous crop of wavy black hair drapes across his shoulders. He’s wearing a jeweled crown and blue satin livery with a rampant lion embroidered on the tunic in gold thread.

Greskarg: “Melitia! So good to see you again. Is that a new riding cloak? And if it isn’t King Lawrence! You’re looking a mite battle-weary, your Highness. How’re you holding up?”

Melitia: “Hey, Greskarg. Back at’cha, and thanks for noticing. (pats Lawrence on the back) I think the big guy here needs some space tonight. He’s having a bad week.”

Lawrence (slumping over the bar): “The author hates me.”

Greskarg: “Why would you say that? I mean, the fellow’s a little eccentric, and I can’t follow his plot twists half the time, and his sense of humor is…unusual…but he created us. He created all of us. Why would he bother doing that if he didn’t care?”

Lawrence (focused on his drink): “I lose half my army in battle with the Skreeks, then I return home to find my capital pillaged by insurrectionists who are now holding my wife and daughter hostage. I’ve been a good king. I’ve done everything the author has demanded of me without complaining. I’ve treated my people with justice and kindness. What did I do to deserve this?”

Greskarg (takes a swig of ale and wipes his mouth on his sleeve): “Maybe he’s trying to develop your character. Make you more three-dimensional.”

Lawrence: “This sort of character development I can do without. A victory or two would be nice. Putting my family in peril does nothing for my morale. I’m tired, Greskarg. I wish he’d write me out of the story and be done with it.”

Greskarg: “Come now, good fellow. Surely you can’t be so deep in despair? You’re a hero. The author has a plan for you. Everything’s going to come out right in the end.”

Lawrence: “A plan? That’s amusing. The man’s a pantser. He’s always been a pantser. We never know what he’ll do next. Every time we think we have the plot figured out, he makes some unfathomable change.”

Melitia: “Tell me about it. I was almost clear of the Odorous Fen three days ago, then he throws in an encounter with the Bog Witch, and now I don’t know when I’m getting out of there. Do you have any idea how hard it is to deodorize leather once it’s exposed to Fen Stench?”

Lawrence (shifting his barstool a few more inches away from Melitia): “That explains the smell. I’d assumed Dave left an overripe plate of anchovies behind the bar.”

Melitia: “Thank you, your Majesty.”

Greskarg: “We may not understand where he’s going, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a plan, or that it’s arbitrary. He has your best interests at heart.”

Lawrence: “Hold on a moment. You’ve lost me. You’re a villain. You know what must be waiting for you at the end of our story.”

Greskarg: “I try to be philosophical about it. Yes, I’m going to die, eventually, and it probably won’t be pleasant, but I’ll be dying for a reason, just like everything that happens to you happens for a reason. It all makes the story more exciting and meaningful for the people who will read it. Thousands of them will bring us to life over and over again in their imaginations. We’ve all got the same stake in his creative process, my friend—immortality.”

Lawrence: “Perhaps he derives some perverse satisfaction from torturing his characters. Have you ever thought of that?”

Melitia: “He’s got a point, Gresk. If we had a civil justice system in our universe, I could have sued our dear author for sexual harassment more times than I can count. For example, in his original concept, this was a chain-mail bikini.”

Lawrence: “Thank heaven he came to his senses.”

Greskarg: “Well, I think it sounds rather disarming.”

Melitia: “Shut up, both of you. Sometimes I wonder if he plays favorites, too. Nothing bad ever happens to that goody-goody Princess Luminara.” (smiles and waves to a pretty young lady in a pink gown and tiara sitting near the fireplace) “Hiya, Luuumiiie! Love the dress!” (turns back to her companions) “Pink? Yeesh. She gives me hives.”

Greskarg: “I think we get the life we need. Would you be happy spending most of your time skipping through the Enchanted Forest, gathering flowers and chatting with squirrels?”

Melitia (fiddles with a broken link on her chain mail): “No, I guess not.”

Greskarg: “Besides, cruelty is totally at odds with his character. Admit it; it’s not all been bad. Melitia, you escaped from the Slavers. The Order of Arion took you in, trained you to be a warrior, and awarded you the Runic Sword. And Lawrence, what about your romance with Charilaine? And how you settled the clan wars and built that new capital city together? Then there was your child’s birth, and the celebration that followed. How could the author be a sadist when he’s brought so much joy into your lives?”

Lawrence: “Yes, those were wonderful times. I still don’t understand why you’re cheerleading for him.”

Greskarg: “Are you jesting? I get to use magic. I have an incredible fortress in the Wolftooth Mountains where I can go skiing anytime I want, and I have an army of two million Skreeks at my beck and call. Don’t pity me, Lawrence. I know my role, and I play it with gusto. I’m loving every moment of my disreputable existence. I also enjoy these conversations with you two on my off-time. Things could be worse.” (frowns for a moment, then gestures toward a group of skinny young men hunched over a table beneath the dartboard) I mean…I could be one of those pitiful fellows in the red shirts.”

Melitia (grinning): “So, you got an explanation for them?”

Greskarg: “Sadly, no.”

Fred was born in Tacoma, Washington, but spent most of his formative years in California, where his parents pastored a couple of small churches. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1983, and spent 24 years in the Air Force as a bomber navigator, flight-test navigator, and military educator. He retired from the Air Force in 2007, and now works as a government contractor in eastern Kansas, providing computer simulation support for Army training.Fred has been married for 25 years to the girl who should have been his high school sweetheart, and has three kids, three dogs, and a mortgage. When he's not writing or reading, he enjoys running, hiking, birdwatching, stargazing, and playing around with computers.Writing has always been a big part of his life, but he kept it mostly private until a few years ago, when it occurred to him that if he was ever going to get published, he needed to get serious about it. Since then, he's written more than twenty short stories that have been published in a variety of print and online magazines, and a novel, The Muse, that debuted in November 2009 from Splashdown Books, which was a finalist for the 2010 American Christian Fiction Writers Carol Award for book of the year in the speculative genre. Speculative fiction is his first love, but he writes the occasional bit of non-fiction or poetry, just to keep things interesting.
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  1. Julius says:

    First off, I loved this! So meta.

    Second off! This reminds me of a trope that’s well recieved in fanfiction circles– the “what if the characters and universe we play around in became aware of our existence and their own nature?” story. I’ve always loved those.

    I remember actually feeling really guilty for writing something into a character’s backstory a while back– his call to adventure was in his humiliation at being rejected by a girl…. and I just felt so bad because he was real to me and it felt so mean. But I knew what he was going to do, I guess. Even if he didn’t know, I knew what he was going to do with that pain, so it had to stay.

  2. Fred Warren says:


    I’m glad you enjoyed it, though you’re right, the basic idea has a pretty long set of whiskers. 🙂 I cribbed a little C.S. Lewis as well in the content of the conversation.

    We talk a lot here about how being created in God’s image is where our spark of creativity comes from, and how we participate in God’s creation, in a sense, as “sub-creators.” So, that led me to thinking about how the characters I create, if they truly had minds of their own, might ask the same sorts of questions about me that I ask about God when incomprehensible things happen.

    I was a little surprised myself to find the villain taking the author’s side. Living on “borrowed time,” I suppose he’s pondered this more than the other characters.


  3. Galadriel says:

    I’m sure my characters are doing this too–and the fanfiction ones are going especially strong, since they’ve had lots of authors, official and otherwise. But yes, the whole “pantser” thing really struck home for me, because that’s how I am. And I just decided to change POV characters, and I’m not sure who’s dying when, of what…yes, it’s a mess up there right now. But yes, I’m ready to discuss.

  4. Fred, if it was up to me, I’d have you writing stories for every post.

    Hope the real life stuff is able to be dealt with satisfactorily.

  5. Fred Warren says:

    Fred, if it was up to me, I’d have you writing stories for every post.

    …and compiling them into anthologies and sending them to Splashdown. 🙂 Seriously, I’ve been wrestling with this issue a bit, trying to figure out what sort of material to contribute, since I seem to be all over the map, and not fully content with any particular format. Stories and metaphor come easiest to me, because that’s how I process life, looking for analogies and pictures and narratives that condense the complexity into a sort of shorthand I can wrap my mind around.

    Hope the real life stuff is able to be dealt with satisfactorily.

    Yes, the worst of the current crisis is behind us. It wasn’t anything terrible or life-threatening, just one of those instances where we thought we had the plot figured out, and then the Author dropped a little twist into the story which cascaded into several minor related crises. We’re just now beginning to understand the method in what seemed madness for awhile. Anybody who’s curious can find a synopsis on my blog: http://frederation.wordpress.com/2012/07/20/speed-bump/

    I don’t write autobiographically, but situations in my personal life tend to inspire a lot of what I write in a broad sense. The dialogue among my characters here, for example, paraphrases a running conversation I was having in my thoughts and prayers the past few weeks as I struggled to cope.


    • Yes, I do read your blog. I think it’s a wonderful thing to process the stuff that happens to us by way of story, as you have done here so well. What an amazing peek into your head – and yet you have made it universally applicable, too. It’s a gift, to offer your own life and connect with your reader on that level.

      [Folks, this is some of what makes Fred an incredible writer! 🙂 ]

      I may not be the typical blog reader, but I really do prefer the story approach.

  6. Brother, I’m glad I didn’t read this provocative piece until today, because of this:

    Yes, the worst of the current crisis is behind us. It wasn’t anything terrible or life-threatening, just one of those instances where we thought we had the plot figured out, and then the Author dropped a little twist into the story which cascaded into several minor related crises.

    With the exception of the “worst of the current crisis is behind us” part, that’s just what happened to me yesterday. Like any whining Mary-Sue character I moaned and complained, as if I, not the Creator of the universe, should be the one to call all shots. Admittedly, this plot twist is decidedly un-exciting and stupidly expensive.

    Your whole little exploration here, especially Greskarg’s rightful pragmatism, reminds me of this little factual and then “speculative” text from the Apostle Paul, which I’ll paraphrase:

    Has the [author] no right over the [characters], to make out of the same [imagination] one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if [the author], desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory […] ?

    Romans 9:21-24

What do you think?