Wednesday, February 27, 2019

How to Be Awful to Your Characters

By David E. Sharp

Sometimes, writers develop proud-parent syndrome. Our characters are special to us, and we want good things to happen for them. We bond with them. We want them to be happy.

But happy characters make a lousy story!

And that is why we must torment them! We must be cruel. We must dangle hope in front of them, but we can't let them get hold of it until they've withstood the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and taken arms against a sea of troubles.

Here are a few of my favorite ways to be awful to my characters.

Give Them Flaws. REAL Flaws.

Characters have to be imperfect. Sometimes we give them job interview flaws. (You know, like: One of the things I struggle with in a workplace is that I'm just too dedicated to my work. It's a real problem.) Characters who are so amazing they can't relate to other people, don't have a real flaw.

It's time to make your character bad at something. Maybe she's clumsy. Maybe he's terrible at reading body language. Maybe you have a character who can't stay focused on the task at hand. It's okay to give your characters shortcomings. They'll be more interesting for it. And you'll only love them more.

These are externals, however. Which brings me to the next point.

Characters Need Internal Flaws.

With only rare exceptions, characters need to have an obscured worldview. If they don't, they have nothing to learn. How will they grow?

It's easy to inject your own values into your protagonists and opposing views into antagonists over whom they can triumph. Be careful about this. Your protagonist is now a mouthpiece instead of a person. Let your character be petty from time to time. Or envious. Or naive. Or short-tempered. Now that's a person.

Well, I'm the boss. And I say you do.

Let Them Contribute to Their Own Troubles.

Characters compound their own problems. External factors can jump-start the action, but after that your characters need to stick their own foot in it.

Like hovering parents, we want to help our protagonists make wise decisions and avoid the pitfalls of life. But how else will they learn? Only by understanding how they contribute to their problems, can they change. A tragic moment of recognition doesn't come without a tragic flaw.

That's when Jay realized that --indirectly due to his raging insecurities
and lingering sibling rivalry-- he was now out of gas.

Give Them Pain

Occasionally, I run into writers who struggle to leave their characters in a crisis. They pile up problems, but throw in solutions just as quickly. While that sounds great in real life, it doesn't work well in fiction. Characters need to stew in their troubles for a while. You should frustrate, humiliate, chastise, and torment your characters.

Pain, physical and emotional, is intrinsic to metamorphosis. If everything always works out for your protagonist, there is no drive to change. Without change, you don't really have a story so much as a sequence of related events. Your readers won't have anything to glean.

Yes, character. I did it. But only to help you become fully-realized,
and capable of deeper thoughts and feelings.

Plus, it was fun. Mwa ha ha!

Then Give Them a Happy Ending ...Maybe

The purpose behind driving them to the brink is so they can return in triumph! The lower they sink, the higher they soar when they bounce back. If you want your readers to stand up and cheer, you're going to have to load the spring.

Unless you're writing a tragedy or a cautionary tale. Then there is no spring.

What's the worst thing you've done to your characters? Let us know in the comments. 

1 comment:

leela_mahal said...

I've done many terrible things to my characters. I've blown them up. I've sent them to war, right when they were on the cusp of breakthrough love. I've made them miss out on their passion due to snowstorms that would not cease. I've wounded them physically and psychologically and emotionally.

Oh goodness. Now I need therapy. But I do (mostly) believe in HEAs. Awful moments don't need to lead to awful outcomes. Right?! :)

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