Character Building #2–Too Much Tragedy

I’m frustrated.

(By the way, welcome to the second installment of my series of posts about Character Building, where I will be chronically my journey as I edit my novel and focus on the characters involved, making them realer, deeper, more interesting, and more complex.)

I’m frustrated with the real world.

What is the real world?

It’s the one I’m trying to forcefully abduct, shove in the trunk of my car, drive back to my house, and keep captive in the pages of my novel, so that my readers can think, “Wow, this feel real.”

Right now, I’m focusing on making my characters real.

A cornerstone of my novel when I set out to write it the first time (that continues on to the second draft) is my need to demonstrate on a page what high school today feels like. Not what adults remember high school like. Not what adults want today’s high school to be like. I want other “young adults” to read my novel and recognize the surroundings, the feelings, the stress, the sleep deprivation. If I’m going to pay attention to the most cliche bit of writing advice, I’m writing what I know–high school.

This is a trait I have struggled to find on the shelves today. The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy does a really good job of describing the classroom experience, but unfortunately, it is a rarity. 

So, I have my goal: write high school. Which for this post, translates to: write high schoolers.

Which brings me back to my first point: I’m frustrated with the real world.

Because the real world can be pretty damn melodramatic and cheesy and shallow and unrealistic at times.

I want to write the characters I see around me every day. The girls who (literally) spent four hours a day on makeup and skin care. The boys who catcall at girls walking home after school. The students buckling under the pressure of APs and college admittance, and the even more impressive ones who manage to stay sane. I want to really punch some people in the face with the fact that parents who feel it is there right and duty to drive their child into the ground with high expectations and punish anything other than A’s with emotional abuse, perpetuating a cycle of stress and sleep deprivation until their child doesn’t know what self esteeme is, is cruel, but normal in today’s world. My peers (and in some ways, myself) suffer from crippling self-esteem issues, insomnia, sleep deprivation, self-hate, paralyzing feelings of worthlessness, and depression. These feelings come from parental pressures, sibling accomplishments and inevitable comparisons, friends and significant others or the lack thereof, the day-to-day stress of homework and extracurriculars, and the fear that we are never doing enough to get into a good college. High school often feels like a machine deliberately designed to break the spirits and bodies of everyone who passes through it.


It’s just that when I try to write these effects down, they feel fake.

I’ve read novels where it feels like the author was trying too hard. The characters feel fake because too much is happening to them, or has happened to them. Not so much in fantasy or paranormal genres, but in contemporary stories–it just seems like the author is over-doing it if they have a depressed character and an abused character and a pathological liar, and, and, and. The main character’s sister died and their brother is psychotic and their mom is emotionally abusive and the main character herself is depressed. And the best friend does drugs and her ex is a stalker. And–you know where I’m going with this. I think we’ve all read these books, where in trying to demonstrate the pain and suffering of real life the author goes too far and screws it up. The “Too Much Tragedy” syndrome.

I don’t want my novel to get this “disease.” As the author, I’d be the one guilty of giving it to my precious manuscript.

Thing is, real life can be pretty tragic, even if people aren’t dropping dead. I’ve been in high school one year and I’ve already met most of the overwrought cliches that I hate reading so much.

When I’m planning my characters, I find myself, in trying to make them deeper, crossing the line between interesting and “too much.”

Maybe I’m not saying this very well.

I want there to be deeper motivations behind the actions of my characters. I want to understand and demonstrate their psyches on the pages of my manuscript. But I find myself giving every character a tragic childhood or a psychological problem or a horribly cheesy inner secret. I can steer myself away from most of these. I lessen the extent of the suffering, make it read less cheesy. It’s frustrating, because some of my characters really would, probably, in real life, suffer from these issues. What is it about putting such things down on paper that makes it feel overdone?

Some authors manage the balance–real, troubled characters that don’t come off as “trying too hard.” But a lot of authors don’t. And if I’m being honest with myself, I consider myself closer to the latter group than the former group in regards to my writing skills. That’s not fishing for compliments or crappy self-esteem. It’s true.

I’m still learning. I have a long ways to go. I’m okay with the fact that I’m not the world’s best author at the age of fifteen–that I probably won’t ever be anything close to my favorite authors.

This is just one of those hurdles I need to suck it up and get over.

Just wondering, have any of you experienced this problem? Have you read books suffering from “too many tragedies”?

One thought on “Character Building #2–Too Much Tragedy

  1. I agree, real life has enough drama. You don’t always need to add psychosis/deep dark secrets/etc. to characters. But making that real-life pressure seem real … that’s really hard.


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