Is there any writer—GM—creator of any sort who has not at some point dropped a metaphorical mountain on at least one member of her cast? I don’t think so. Tragedy and trauma may not be quite as ubiquitous as ants in San Diego, but they come pretty close. It’s pretty easy to tell why mountain-hurling is the easiest point of recourse for the writer looking for a plot—negative emotions generally get a stronger reaction than positive, and trauma pretty much guarantees some sort of conflict, which a plot needs. But for the extreme cases—the actual mountains, rather than minor stumbling blocks or pesky inconveniences and irritations—usually there’s another reason. I’ve found four general motivations, often mixed and matched, for an authorial tendency to drop mountains on characters.
Some mountains are dropped because it’s the only way to ensure that a given plot event happens. This is most often the cause of death of Old Mentors, at least as applied to their students; how’s the student supposed to Become Independent and Surpass the Teacher and so on if Teach is standing right there? Same goes for the characters who began their lives of adventuring/vigilante heroing/searching for a cure for Backstory Syndrome because of the death(s) of someone close to them, or just about anything that kicks off a revenge plot, whether any of the people involved actually dies or not.
Some people drop mountains to see what the characters look like when they finally crawl out from under them, or how they crawl out from under them in the first place. What is a traumatic event, after all, if not an opportunity for character growth? These are a lot likelier to happen onstage—we want to watch too—particularly when dealing with characters whose inner lives are part of the selling point to their plots. (I can also think of a number of GMs who enjoy doing this to their players, myself included—my one regret is that I am much better at doing this to my own characters, or finding ways for my GMs to do it to mine, than I am at doing it to anyone else’s.)
Some people drop mountains on their characters because throwing the mountains back off of themselves makes the characters look awesome. Which people these are is probably a matter of opinion, though I have a few strong guesses (my inspiration for this post was a book in which I was starting to get the sinking feeling that the writer was one such): I look for (or rather, I see, as I’d rather not look for these) main characters who will go from one traumatic event to the next with about the speed of one of my library patrons going through books, whose injuries or scars only seem to hurt when it would be dramatic or angsty, who get a perfect recompense (often with interest!) for every horrible thing they go through.
Some people drop mountains on their characters purely for the emotional impact on the audience; some even admit it. As a strategy, it’s remarkably effective. How people react to it is another question; there are those for whom it works, there are those who recognize it as a cheap trick and want nothing to do with it, there are those who have both reactions and end up being affected and resenting the fact that they are so affected…. Mileage varies, what can I say? This works best when the event also furthers the plot or plays the “watch the character develop/see how the character changed” card: that way, the ulterior motives are somewhat less blatant and can be easily excused by the necessity. (I, for one, have very few literary pet peeves quite like “I will kill off a character for the sole purpose of establishing Dark and Gritty Quotient”, and tend to be even more irritable when it’s an RPG character in a block-text scene.)
If you’re getting ready for a mountain drop, think about why you’re doing it, and how much you want your reasoning to show through. Have you had any other reasons?