“…the writer must ask these crucial questions: ‘Is the hero going to emerge from this victor or vanquished? And is the atmosphere one of comedy, tragedy, or both mixed?’”
Fiction, as so many of us know, can be a tricky business. We’re told we should write what we know. Yet, we write of fantasy worlds that are filled with aliens, vampires, and mythical beasts. We’re told we need to understand our audience. Yet, first and foremost we must (and do) write for ourselves. How about this one? Plot is critical for a successful story. And yet, Stephen King believes, “plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” As an MFA graduate and as a creative writing teacher I heard (and, I admit, taught) countless conflicting tips just like these over a decade. Lately, however, I’ve been rereading Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction and it seems to me that that she nailed it when she encouraged us as fiction writers to especially ask the question: Is the hero(ine) going to emerge from this victor or vanquished?
For me, the most compelling stories to read and to write have heroes that are vanquished. To be vanquished, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is to be overcome in battle, or spiritually, or emotionally. I want to spend time with a character who, against all odds, fights her way through obstacles, only to not succeed completely in her quest, whether that be surviving a cruel disease wiping out an entire imagined planet or being gay in a dysfunctional, homophobic family. Our story’s characters may “survive” in one way, but not in others. That seems like a true reflection of life to me. And writing about vanquished heroines does one other thing: it allows us as writers to delve into questions that may not have black and white answers. It allows us to understand that heroes are more complex than save-the-day types.
I suppose this is a personal issue for me, as all writer’s choices are. In 1986 my brother, Philip, was involved in a boating accident. I wrote about it and its aftermath in a personal essay published by the southern magazine, The Rambler. Philip was on a hunting trip with five other men when their boat capsized crossing a reservoir in upstate New York. He made the fatal choice to swim for help with one other man. The four others held on to the overturned boat. The man Philip went with separated from him in the dark and floated on his back to shore when his arms got tired. My brother did not. He drowned. Everyone else survived. I couldn’t write about it for twenty-two years, mostly because I wanted to explore whether my brother, vanquished, was a hero, why he made the choices he did, and what happens to us, the loved ones of a sole victim. Such writing takes time. It’s akin to eating a jalapeno pepper. Every so often you have to step away, dry your tears, and let the pain subside. Then go back at it.
Sometimes there isn’t a happy ending for our heroines. A happy ending suggests that the character made all the right choices, only good choices. The why is no longer compelling or necessary. Instead the story becomes a study of morality. I want to vanquish that old sawhorse: If we make the right choices, then we succeed. Characters should be more complex than that. Life is.
Randi Triant’s debut novel The Treehouse was released by Sapphire Books Publishing in 2018 and was an AfterEllen best summer read. After years as a film producer and writer, she received her MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in literary journals and magazines, and she’s taught writing at Emerson College and Boston College.