I've just finished the fourth book by the fabulous Irish writer Tana French. This woman is good, really good, which is why I've been devouring each of her novels as it appears. I did reflect, however, as I reluctantly closed the cover on the most recent one, that there is a limit to how dark and miserable our characters should be. French is excellent at what she does--but how far should a writer go? Are there any successful and meaningful fictional characters who aren't tormented nearly to madness?
It's axiomatic that conflict is at the heart of good fiction. Nevertheless, (leaving aside romance, which has its own set of rules) I think torturing every character may be a mistake. If every character in every story you write has a heartwrenching backstory, if every story ends with someone losing their heart's desire or their lifelong dream, does that not in itself dilute the tension? If you know, going into a novel, that the author--however gifted she might be, and French is seriously gifted--is always going to take you down the darkest, unhappiest path she can find, will you want to go on turning pages?
There is an inevitability that informs romance novels. Nora Roberts has said that the answer at the end of a romance novel is always "Yes!" For some readers, this is what they yearn for. For others, that inevitability means a total lack of tension, and thus a lack of compelling interest. Can we non-romance writers err in the opposite direction from Roberts's "Yes"? I think it's possible.
One of the best questions I was ever asked came from a middle-schooler. He said, "Aren't there any stories where there aren't any problems?" It was a great intro to my usual presentation about conflict. I toss off my statement, "The story starts where the trouble starts," automatically. I think, though, that a writer can be too obvious in the development of conflict. There are people in the world who are interesting even though they're happy. And even unhappy characters--like the people they represent--can find resolution, healing, fulfillment. They can find futures.
I think our readers should turn the pages of our stories with an impatience to find out whether the characters they've become attached to and invested in will be in the lucky group or the unlucky group. Nothing wrong with a good tragedy, and I've done tragedies! But I hope neither the tragic ending nor the happy resolution will be predictable.