Villains, Writing and Emotional Drain

I’ll admit it: I am a rabid fan of the HBO show Game of Thrones, and a new, learning fan of the book series the show is based off of. That said, I feel it’s appropriate to open this with a quote from the man who has become a huge influence to me lately, mister George R. R. Martin:

[The] Red Wedding was the hardest thing I ever wrote. I wrote the entire book, I skipped over the Red Wedding and wrote all the way to the end, and then I came back and did the Red Wedding, because it was just emotionally difficult to do that. But you know, hopefully, if it’s hard to write, it’ll be hard to read, too. It’ll affect the reader emotionally. I mean if the reader is just reading the book and terrible things happen, and they just put it aside and say, “What’s for dinner,” you’ve kind of failed. Your characters haven’t achieved any reality here. If sad things happen in the book, the readers should be sad about them. And that does involve a certain amount of emotional vulnerability on the part of the writer.

The Austin Chronicle

Emotional drain in the writing process has been a real deal for me, lately. I’ve felt disconnected from Warpath, seeing it mostly as a bridge from the first to third books, but in the writing of Liliana, there is an emotional drain that wasn’t there before, especially concerning the eponymous Dark Witch herself.

Without getting too spoilery in my own work, a good chunk of the third book in the Second Realm trilogy fleshes Liliana out as more than just a nameless face of evil power. I’ve always believed in a good villain, and nine times out of ten I will enjoy the villain of a tale more than the protagonist – but the villain has to have an interesting story and character development! Taking from an article that ended up being highly influential on me:

Most villains are people too, and people develop and change over time. Unfortunately, many writers get stuck on making sure their villain stays a villain or at least stays the same kind of villain, and as a result logical character progress is ignored – or worse, previous characterization gets completely contradicted.

The depth of Liliana’s development is what caught me off guard, as she took me in a new direction that I hadn’t seen before I started writing for her. Her development changed the way the third book developed. Unfortunately a side effect of all that progress was the emotional drain.

When I was younger I used to complain endlessly about writer’s block. With more experience under my belt, I can define writer’s block better, and identify why it happened. When I was younger, it was the lack of proper planning and world building – that is, I had an idea and I ran so fast with it that if I wasn’t able to work on it for a week or the idea faded or was forgotten about, the entire project stalled because I had done nothing to develop the world to start with.

Now, my writer’s block usually comes from two places:

  1. Trying to work on too many projects at once and not being able to focus
  2. Not being able to handle where I’m at in a project

That first point drives the longest absence in my writing, as I sit there and chase my tail trying to get myself to work on something solid, but it’s the second one that holds more importance. I’ve always been highly emotional and that can be difficult for some people to handle (particularly when I was an angsty teenager), but it’s a wonderful thing to utilize in writing. Being able to dive deeply into a character’s thoughts and understand their emotions makes for me being able to portray them more accurately.

Unfortunately as I journey with the characters, I become more protective of them. It’s not uncommon in writing. We writers project ourselves onto our characters and develop with them. To throw them to the lions isn’t something that a writer wants to do. I cited mister Martin at the beginning because his literary universe is no stranger to death. Fans joke about the lifespan of characters in Westeros, but the man behind the curtain has to develop the characters, journey with them, grow with them…and then kill them off.

To intentionally put characters one has developed in the line of fire is something that is incredibly emotionally draining. The Shadow Assassins have been on the brain for quite a long time, and to see them active is an amazing gift – to put them into dangerous situations where they can die is stressful. It seems silly to outsiders. They’re fictional characters, creations of my own imaginations, but they are very much real, just as any set of characters is real to the people who have created them.

That said, drafting Liliana has been more draining than the previous two books. For me it’s a point of closure for the Shadow Assassins, who have been an untold story for years. It’s a point of opening for the Second Realm universe, most of which is unexplored. It’s a point of developing a villain that is not just evil laughter, smirking and evil deeds (referencing the Springhole article on villains, it’s definitely a good read if you’ve skipped over the link) – which is exactly what Liliana has mostly been at this point, because she lacked so much development in the first two books.

One thing I’ve noticed lately is that when I write, I need the rest of the world to be closed off from me. Headphones on, music loud, the world shrinks down to where I can get unashamedly lost in my writing. That seclusion allows me to get deeper into a character, fleshing out their fears and wants and needs, even as they cling to life. When I’m in that zone, the drain doesn’t hit all at once. It isn’t until I feel myself slowing down, feel the words becoming clumsier that I realized how worn out I am. The transference of emotion from brain to paper (or computer screen) isn’t instant, but it can be debilitating, if only for a few hours. A friend of mine recently wrote part of her upcoming novel where her female protagonist experiences a round of emotional abuse at the hands of her captor. After the scene was over, she didn’t know how she should be feeling – she just knew that she was beyond exhausted, emotionally drained to the point that she had to leave her computer and recuperate with a good book.

When we write about our villains, we become our villains – just as we become the protagonists. We dictate their actions, their expressions and their motivation. There becomes a struggle, in situations where like my friend, she had to write both the abuse that her protagonist went through, but also become the abuser in order to capture it. I’ve felt similar in developing Liliana, fleshing out her fears, her desires and her drive, being both the one that hurts the Shadow Assassins and the one that is hurt while writing for the Shadow Assassins (and from her perspective, writing as her being hurt, and writing as the one hurting her). It’s confusing, it’s liberating, it’s troubling.

At the end of the day, it’s just exhausting.

With drafting Liliana, I’ve had short and long bursts of activity – long bursts where I know where everything falls into place, and short bursts, where I hit that emotional wall and just don’t want to put the pain to paper. With the end of the third book looming closer for me, there are more threads to tie up, story lines to close…and maybe people to kill off. I’d say I’m about three quarters finished with the initial drafting of the idea. I have a feeling that the emotional drain won’t stop until this story has its close…

At least, until the next adventure starts.

PS: blog image found here, and yes that is from the Red Wedding scene in Game of Thrones.