I had a bit of an epiphany over the weekend: writing genre fiction is the art of doing horrible things to people you like. And the really odd thing (if you think about it), is that the more a reader likes these people and the worse the things that happen to them, the more interesting the book is.
Up to a point, of course. In genre fiction, they generally ultimately prevail over the bad things that happen. It's not quite as much fun when it's a case of bad stuff happens, the end. And each reader has his/her limits and preferences. There's that "grimdark" fantasy in which life just generally sucks and only a few characters come out sort of okay. Not my thing, but it has a huge readership. I'm kind of a weenie, actually. There are some authors I can only read when I'm in a particular mood and have the time to finish a book in one sitting because they torture their characters so much, either physically or emotionally, and don't let them prevail until the very end, so I can't put the book down midway without being depressed. I also have issues when the horrible things that happen are the character's own fault -- bumbling into trouble by being too stupid to live -- and humiliation is probably more disturbing for me in a book than physical torment, probably because I can mentally gloss over physical woes while reading (it's only as bloody as you let yourself imagine it being) while I find that I feel the character's humiliation.
All this came up as I was working out that problem of not having put my main characters in any kind of jeopardy. I should have known better. One of my favorite authors is Dick Francis, and the thing I love about his books is how he pushes his characters to the very edge. They usually have a few close calls earlier in the book, and then the climax is a true ordeal. It's not so much that I enjoy their suffering as it is that I enjoy seeing them overcoming it all, being able to put aside the pain and think their way out of their predicament. Perhaps my favorite Francis book is the one in which the hero writes survival manuals, and the killer is getting ideas for the traps he sets for him out of those books, which means the hero is really put to the test of drawing upon everything he knows in order to survive.
But the trick is that you do have to have some kind of purpose to the jeopardy. It's not just bouncing from one predicament to the other. In order to have jeopardy that has something to do with the plot, I had to step back and really think about what the villain is up to and how that would affect the various characters. To figure that out, I ended up spending a lot of the weekend reading history books to find similar situations so I could glean a few tactics of what this person might be up to. Now I have to take all that and put together an evil scheme, and from there I can decide how that scheme will affect my characters. The villain may be offstage for the first two-thirds of the book, but the characters will still be feeling the effects of the villain's actions.
Meanwhile, I have the leading edge of a potential story idea nagging at my head, thanks to watching ice dancing yesterday. It was the story behind a piece of music that I now suddenly want to play with. I'm just not yet sure how.