Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Dare to Let Your Characters Fail by Alison Henderson

I know writers who rub their hands together in glee cooking up new and increasingly diabolical ways to challenge (i.e. torture) their characters. They delight in leading their literary babies to the brink then pushing them over. They plunge their heroes and heroines into the depths of despair in order to make their ultimate triumph that much sweeter. 

Sadly, I'm not one of those writers. I'm too tender-hearted. I love my characters, and it's hard work for me to create sufficient conflict between them, much less subject them to failure. But I know I have to do it for their own good. It's like letting your child fall off her bike so she learns to get back on and try again. Failure really does sweeten success.

In my latest romantic suspense, UNWRITTEN RULES, my heroine (Madelyn) is a bodyguard who lives and breathes professionalism. She's competent, sharp-witted, and savvy. So what did I do to her? To test her mettle, I thrust her into an unfamiliar environment and allowed her to fail. A would-be assassin evades her security and attacks her client, ex-CIA agent-turned bestselling author Carter Devlin. Here's an excerpt from that scene:

Madelyn bounced along on Foxy, her bottom slapping the saddle with every step. There had to be a trick to this. Cowboys never bounced in the movies. She could see figures ahead next to a copse of trees. Carter and Sam must have stopped to wait for the rest of the party.
As she rode closer, she was able to make out two horses, one man standing, and one sitting on the ground. A few yards closer and she recognized Sam Barnett’s helmet of blond hair. The man on the ground must be Carter, but he didn’t appear to be resting. Something about his posture was wrong.
Her heart stopped in her chest, then lurched back into rhythm. She kicked Foxy’s sides and slapped the reins. The mare launched into a full gallop, and Madelyn hung on for dear life. When they neared the men, she yanked the reins with all her strength, and the horse jerked to a halt. She snapped forward in the saddle, but grabbed the horn and managed to keep her seat. She clambered down and raced over to kneel beside Carter.
The broken end of an arrow protruded from the back of his left shoulder. She stared at it blankly. An arrow. He couldn’t have an arrow in his flesh. Who gets shot with an arrow? It had to be fake. There was almost no blood on his shirt. She touched it, and Carter swore violently. The arrow was real, all right.
She glared at Sam. “How did this happen?”
The senator ran a hand through his perfect hair, leaving it still perfect. “I’ll be damned if I know. I didn’t see or hear anyone. Lucy was behind me. I turned around, and he was on the ground. I’m guessing it was poachers. We’ve had some around here for the past few months.”
“I heard an engine,” Carter ground out between clenched teeth. “From over there somewhere.” He jerked his chin toward the small grove of oaks. “Right after I was hit.”
“An engine?” Sam scanned the trees. “I don’t see anything now. I’ll have my security staff search the area with the sheriff when he arrives.”
“You called the sheriff?”
“You bet I did. I’ve got to report a thing like this. I can’t have it get out in the press that I’m hiding anything. Everything’s got to be completely above board.”
Even if Sam’s first thought had been to avoid a scandal, Madelyn was glad he’d called the authorities. Maybe they would find some useful evidence. She refused to believe this was the work of poachers.
“Did you call an ambulance?”
“Lucy wouldn’t let me, but I’ve got a doctor coming to the house.”
A black Suburban roared across the pasture and pulled up beside them. Frank the foreman and Mr. Secret Service climbed out.
She slid her arm around Carter’s back, careful to avoid his injured shoulder and the arrow. A wave of nausea rolled over her. “Do you think you can stand?”
“We’ll take care of him, Ms. Li,” Mr. Secret Service said.
He and Frank got Carter to his feet and supported him on the short walk to the car. Carter’s face was pale, but he didn’t make a sound. Madelyn climbed in beside him and slid her arm behind his back to keep him from leaning against the broken arrow. As soon as the door clicked shut, he closed his eyes and let his head fall back.
She clutched his hand, never taking her eyes from his face as they bounced across the open field. Her muscles tensed with every bump. She wished she could absorb the jolts and spare him further pain. Only an occasional squeeze from his hand betrayed any discomfort.
Someone must have alerted Herman and helped him dismount, because he met them at the back door. She had never actually seen anyone wring their hands before, but Herman twisted his like a wet dishrag.
“How could this happen? I can’t believe it. Is he going to be all right? What are we going to do?”
“I’m fine.” Carter approached, supported by Frank and the security chief.
“He’s not fine,” Madelyn snapped. “Is the doctor here yet?”
Laura stepped forward. “He should be here any minute.” She glanced at Sam. “And the sheriff’s waiting in your office.”
“Boys, help Lucy over to the kitchen table. If the doctor wants him lying down, we can take care of that when he gets here. I’m going to talk to the sheriff.”
They eased Carter onto a chair, and Madelyn sat beside him. Herman fluttered around, unable to settle. A few minutes later, the doorbell rang, the front door opened and closed, and voices came down the hall toward the kitchen. Laura stepped into the room with a well-dressed, middle-aged man with a five hundred dollar haircut and an umpteen thousand dollar watch. He looked more like a cardiac surgeon from a prestigious big city clinic than a country doctor who made house calls. Perhaps it depended on whose house it was.
“This is Dr. Kitteridge.”
The doctor smiled. “This must be the patient.” He set his bag on the table and leaned down to examine Carter’s shoulder. “Hmm. Hunting accident?”
Carter grunted. “Sort of.”
“Well, let’s see what we’ve got here.” The doctor took a pair of surgical scissors from his bag and began cutting Carter’s shirt off. He stopped abruptly and frowned. “You must have been expecting trouble.”
He had exposed the shoulder strap of the bulletproof vest. Sam’s retainer must have been enough to guarantee discretion because he asked no further questions as he continued snipping until the remnants of the shirt had been removed. Next he cut through the strap of the vest, and Madelyn helped remove it as gently as possible. Carter sat perfectly still until the heavy vest lay on the table, then he took a slow, deep breath.
The doctor examined the arrow from several angles then straightened. “You’re a lucky man. The arrow appears to have gone straight into the fleshy part of the muscle below the joint just to the left of the scapula. If it had hit bone, it might have shattered it, and you wouldn’t be sitting here so quietly.”
“How deep is it?”
“Hard to tell. I don’t know how long the arrow was to begin with. Can you make a fist?”
Carter stretched his fingers then clenched them.
The doctor removed a small pointed instrument from his bag. “Tell me if you feel this.” He worked his way down Carter’s arm poking the skin. Seemingly satisfied with the responses, he put the instrument away. “There doesn’t appear to be any nerve damage.”
“Can you get it out?” Carter asked.
“It shouldn’t be too much of a problem, but we’ll need to go to the Emergency Room.”
“Can’t you just do it here?”
“This isn’t a sterile environment, and I don’t have everything I need.”
“The doctor’s right.” Madelyn stepped forward. “We need to get you to the hospital.”
“No hospitals.”
“Be reasonable. You can’t just leave that thing in there.”
“I’m not going to a hospital.”
“Carter, don’t be—“
       Without a word, he reached over his left shoulder with his right hand and ripped the arrow from his flesh. She stared in horror as the room began to spin, and everything went black.



Margo Hoornstra said...

Lots going on in that excerpt. I'm like you, I have a hard time killing off my characters. Which is probably why I don't write suspense. Best of luck with this one, Alison. Still love that cover!

Liz Flaherty said...

Oh, good heavens, it about went black for me too, just reading about it. I am such a gutless wonder!

Jannine Gallant said...

That's one way to remove an arrow! LOL I have a problem not making my h&h too perfect. So I've been working on that. My current hero doesn't have a high powered job. He's a total slacker doing just enough to get by. My last heroine discarded men faster than empty pizza boxes. It's a challenge to work with characteristics that are less than the accepted norm. But, I think these characters are more sympathetic than their perfect counterparts.

Leah St. James said...

Great premise and excerpt, Allison!

Alicia Dean said...

Excellent excerpt, and yes, we MUST torture our characters. Unlike you, I enjoy it...may be too much. Muwahahahaha

Diane Burton said...

It's hard to torture characters we love. I know, I know, everything can't be perfect. Great excerpt, Alison.