Pauline N Peril flees for her life down a rocky mountain path. To her left and right are pits of deadly red hot lava. Behind her are the minions of the evil Count von Cloakenstache. Pauline has discovered the count’s evil plans of evil, and is desperate to deliver them to the rebellion before it is too late. The count’s minions are gaining, but Pauline pushes on, since she knows if she is caught a grim, grizzly and gruesome fate awaits her at the count’s hands. Suddenly, a blood curdling snarl hisses from one of the terrible chasms and something scaly crawls onto the path ahead of her, Oh no! It’s the dreadful dragon of increased tension!
At this point, the question you would probably ask; at least once you’d got over the total ridiculousness of the above scenario, is: “How is Pauline going to get out of that?”.
You might ponder various solutions, maybe Pauline will turn and fight, using the narrowness of the path to her advantage, maybe she will try to lead the dragon to the minions, thus solving two problems with one swallow, maybe Pauline has compatriots on the way who will arrive in the nick of time, or maybe she will be captured by the count, but will be able to escape or turn the tables on him later.
Generally, when a character is put in jeopardy, when they are in some sort of (usually physical) danger, we assume that they are going to get out of it. The jeopardy might of course change the course of the story, or the development of the character, however, we usually expect that the character will escape without suffering any permanent harm. Thus the question uppermost in our minds when confronted with Pauline’s plight is: “How will she get out of that?”.
Suppose however, that the above scenario occurred in a book where one or more main characters had already met untimely ends. At that point, when there is a distinct possibility that Pauline could end up being munched by the dragon or killed by the count or his minions, then, we’re likely to be wondering not only “how will Pauline get out of that?”, but whether she will do so at all.
These are to my mind, the two most perfect states for a reader to be in, since in both questions of “how”, and “whether”, there is a huge amount of ambiguity, and thus a huge amount of interest in seeing what will happen. We don’t know how long the jeopardy will continue, we don’t know what resources the character might find, or what help might be available, and there is nothing like trying to find out what we don’t know (especially when it comes to danger), to get those tenterhooks well and truly planted and keep us reading.
This is also why I am personally a huge fan of authors who are willing to take the gloves off and; even just once, prove that they will go as far as killing a main character, since in every dangerous situation thereafter, we never know if things are going to go that far again, albeit this is more of an optional extra than an absolute necessity, and many a good author can make us believe they might indeed go that far, without actually having to go that far, as Neil Gaiman did in Stardust, or Kat Howard did in Roses and Rot.
There are however, two extremes which jeopardy can run to, two chasms, rather like Pauline’s lava gauntlet, into which an otherwise good story might stray if the author hasn’t nurtured our expectations correctly, and will act on our sense of suspense in a story rather the way that a plunge into molten lava would for poor Pauline. Just as the two above questions, the metaphorical safe roads, could be thought of as “how”, and “whether”, these two extremes could be thought of as “when”, and “what.”
The first (and most common) flaw which authors can run into when putting characters in jeopardy, occurs when the author has already established that this is a universe where nothing bad is allowed to happen to the main characters. A world where all injury or inconvenience is nipped in the bud, a world where we have such an absolute certainty about the characters’ safety, that we cease to wonder “how will they get out of that”, and start to simply ask, “when will they get out of that?”.
This might happen because the main character is a full blown succeedinator, and thus extricates themselves from any and all dangerous situations as a matter of course, however a character doesn’t need to be a succeedinator to fall into this particular pit.
An ultimate badass who simply shrugs off all injury or danger because they’re just that awesome, a pretty damsel being constantly pulled out of trouble by those around her, a cunning escape artist who is always coming up with a new plan, a magic user who can modify their magic for every occasion, or a character who wanders around with a devoted pet/follower/mount/spirit/companion who will always stop badness before it befalls them; there is no shortage of “get out of danger free” cards. Often, when this problem occurs, it is not due to one single factor or plot element, or even due to one style of writing, since I’ve come across it in everything from testosterone filled action romps, to empowering feel good stories. Nor, is it limited to one sort of character, be that hard cases, intellectuals, damsels, or heck, even just likable characters whom we, and presumably the author, don’t want to see bad things happen to. Frequently, this problem occurs in otherwise pretty good books written by highly competent authors. This is quite strange given that the “when will they get out of that”, problem is such an easy one to avoid, since even if an author does not want to go as far as killing or maiming main characters, simply injecting a bit of tension, fear and uncertainty into the characters perspective should not be a major challenge. After all, as dangerous situations are; well, dangerous, it’s not so hard to imagine someone being cautious, apprehensive, or even outright afraid of dangerous things.
David Eddings’ Belgariad involves an entire group of overpowered heroes. However, the fact that we always tend to see things from the callow Garion’s perspective, means that things feel far more dire than they actually are, such as when Garion spends a good while after being locked up alone in a dungeon feeling; not unreasonably, afraid of the impending prospect of being a human sacrifice, even though his friend the master spy Silk is able to pick the dungeon’s locks in less than half an hour.
Frequently, the “when will they get out of that?”, problem occurs simply because a story is moving at such a fast pace, the characters barely have time to feel mildly anxious before the danger is vanquished, and all that would be needed is just a little time to let the tension and uncertainty grow.
The second pitfall on the road to successfully jeopardising characters, is one which occurs almost exclusively in horror or grim dark literature, and that is to go to the opposite extreme from the “when will they get out of that?” problem. This happens when the world a book depicts is so absolutely awful, that we become so certain that the worst will inevitably happen, we actually develop suffering fatigue, and start to wonder, not “whether a character will escape”.” But “what horrible thing will happen to them next”.
The late Terry Goodkind provides a perfect example of this problem, indeed I once saw a blog article rewrite a Goodkind version of the badger badger badger song, to read “murder murder murder murder, torture torture, murder murder murder murder rape! It’s a rape!”.
With Goodkind, there was so much sheer unpleasantness going on, that situations when characters were threatened with torture or death ceased to be shocking, and the only thing left to wonder about was the rather morbid fascination of which variety of nasty he was going to pull out next, everything from torture, to mutilation, to rape, to brainwashing or mental invasion, not to mention all sorts of painful deaths.
This can also as a side effect make villains or monsters, ironically, less scary. If we know by default that every time the monster chases someone, they’re going to get munched, or every time someone ends up in the villains clutches they’re going to be tortured, then all of our desperate hopes that a character we presumably like will not be meeting some dreadful fate, fly out of the window.
Again, this is a pretty easy problem to solve by; well, just letting characters occasionally avoid the nasty stuff happening, although if (as unfortunately often happens with writers who overdose on grimdark), bad things happen to everyone accept the main characters, this can also make the world feel rather lopsided to say the least.
All of these jeopardy questions apply almost exclusively to main characters, or at least side characters. Again, if we know a character is wearing that famous red shirt with the big target sign, we are not going to be in any suspense about that character’s fate when the going gets torturous.
This is particularly a problem in horror literature, or when a horrific villain is engaging in a bit of minion, or innocent slaying, since manifestly one good way of showing how just plain horrible something or someone is, is by having that thing or person do something horrible to someone else.
However, even here, there is a way to change our expectations, by simply giving us enough of a view of the red shirt wearing character, to convince us that they might grow to have more part in the story, and thus might actually not be a red shirt at all.
This I’ve seen employed by horror writers like James Herbert, and Bentley Little (and most recently by Jonathan Janz). Make the red shirt character effectively the star of their own point of view chapter, telling you who they are and where they come from, and giving you the possibility that they might not be about to suffer a grizzly doom, indeed, the more we connect to the redshirt, the more we will care when the doom arrives. Even George R. R. Martin employs this structure at the start of Clash of Kings, when poor old Maester Cressen shows us first hand how much of a nasty piece of work Melisandre is.
This isn’t of course to say redshirt murder should never happen, however as with many literary matters, often a light touch is best, since frequently one red shirt murder followed by a number of threats and possible escapes, can do far more for raising the tension than five unavoidable slayings.
In a criminal trial, jurors are required to arrive at a verdict, “beyond any reasonable doubt.” In fiction however, it is that very “reasonable doubt”, which is exactly what an author should be aiming to produce, since ultimately the more certain we are of a characters’ fate, the less invested in that character’s situation we will be. After all, if we are pretty sure we know that a character is, or is not, doomed, the less reason we have to find out whether they are in fact doomed, and if not, how they will avoid said doom.
So, if you had indeed read the above scenario and were wondering, will Pauline N Peril be eaten by the dragon? Or captured by the count? Or will she escape?
If the author has done their job properly, the only right answer should be: “read on and find out!”.