Wednesday, October 28, 2020

5 Ways to Make Your Characters Hate You (And Why You Should)

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

To be a great writer, it helps to be a terrible parent (but only to your characters).

I have this philosophy for my characters—what doesn’t kill them makes them more interesting. It allows me to be as ruthless and mean to them as I want, because I know that in the end, all their suffering will make readers love them even more.

My characters aren’t happy about this, of course, but they understand the necessity.

One of my favorite “evil things” to do to them is force them to face horrible, if not impossible, choices. Choices that will tear them in two, make them question themselves and the path they took, and often leave them in dire situations with no hope in sight.

<cackles gleefully>

Why do I heap such hardships on my poor characters? Because…

Difficult challenges and impossible choices make compelling plots.

Protagonists who struggle and face tough choices are the ones readers root for and remember.

Problem is, sometimes we forget to offer our protagonists that choice or that challenge. We plot the novel to move them from page one to the end, focusing on how they resolve their problem, not the choices that got them there, or the obstacles they had to overcome. Since we know what has to happen (or not), we inadvertently steer them to whatever action will move them a step closer to the resolution.

And we forget to include the challenges and choices to get there.

Here are five ways make sure readers keep rooting for your characters: 

1. Don’t go easy on them—ever. Especially when you want to.

Readers want to watch the characters struggle to win, because that creates uncertainty, which raises the tension and hooks them even further to see what happens next.

Give your protagonist obstacles to overcome and challenges to face to succeed. Make them work for every step and every victory. Take away the tools they need, and force them to improvise.

If there’s never a chance to lose, the victory doesn’t matter.

2. Take emotional advantage of them whenever you can.

If readers don’t commit emotionally to the characters, they don’t care. One compelling way to do that, is to heap on the internal conflicts. Put your protagonist’s internal and external goals at odds. Force them to sacrifice one to get other. Look for ways you can raise the tension by making it harder on your protagonist to know what to do.

Another way is to prey upon their fears and weaknesses and use them to manipulate the protagonist into making the wrong choices. Push them past their breaking point and see what they’ll do.

If the protagonist has to go completely against character to get what they want, readers probably won't see it coming.

3. Make them prove their commitment over and over and over…

This is where the hard choices come into play. Keep asking the protagonist to make difficult choices that lead them further and further along the plot path. They must prove their dedication to the goal, show they’re not going to run or give up, and that they’re willing to risk it all.

Create problems where either option has terrible consequence, but the protagonist has to pick something. With these types of choices, the outcome isn't obvious, so it keeps readers guessing. It also allows them to consider what they might do in the same situation, helping them to connect to the character.

Be careful not to mistake a tough choice with one that only looks tough. Look at the options. If the "right" choice is clear and no one would ever choose the other, it's isn't really a choice.

4. Force them to question everything.

No matter how tough the choice or the challenge, if readers can see it coming it won't keep them all that engaged. Unless it's something they dread coming and see it barreling down on them—those challenges are excellent. Use your own judgement on which is which for your novel. Major set piece events work well as looming situations, while smaller problems typically work better as surprises.

Don't be afraid to write yourself into a corner if that’s where the story goes. Sometimes you need to force yourself to think outside the plot. Consider not only what would make that scene more compelling, but how that scene fits into the bigger plot picture.

Make sure there's uncertainty about which way the plot will go, and not be a clear (and obvious) line from what the protagonist wants to what they need to do to get it.

5. Lie to them so they make terrible mistakes (and then revel in their pain).

You don’t have to give the protagonist all the information they need to solve their problem. It’s much more fun if you hold back some of it, or mislead them a little, or let them get things wrong. Let them draw the wrong conclusions and follow the wrong path—and make sure that path leads to disaster.

A common mistake is to let the other characters in the novel give the protagonist what they need when they need it. Why would they help? What’s in it for them? Most of the time, those characters would never help, or help so easily. Let them refuse to aid your protagonist or even give them the wrong information.

The harder it is for your characters to resolve the novel’s problem, the more interesting your plot will be. And if they hate you for it? You’ve done your job.

I know this is tough for a lot of writers. You love your characters and you want to protect them, but putting them through heck is actually good for them. They learn important lessons and grow as people, and through all this pain and suffering, they emerge whole—and happy.

And you want your characters to be happy, right?

As you work on your scenes, look to see if you're just getting your protagonist to the point they need to be at, or if you're doing things to them that will force them to make tough choices.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine the choices and challenges your protagonist faces in the novel. Do you make them work for it, or is everything solved without much difficulty? If the plot path is too smooth, brainstorm ways you can add harder choices and tougher challenges to it.

Are your characters facing tough choices? Are there difficult challenges between them and their goals? 

*Originally published December 2009. Last updated October 2020.

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers. 

This book will help you: 
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. 

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing. 

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  1. I especially like the 'tough choices' bit. There's nothing more boring than a book where the main character sails through every major choice they have to make, especially if every other element of the plot makes it painfully obvious what they're going to do beforehand.

  2. Yes tough choices make a novel for me--but are so hard to write. Definitely easier for external conflict but its usually the internal one that stays with you and touches you.

  3. You're right that tough choices are important to keeping a story interesting. Sometimes, I want to be nice to my characters and let them sail through too much and then have to go back and revise. I can't wait to see how you force your characters to make touch choices when I get your book for the holidays.

  4. Thanks for this, Janice. This really helps me with my plot gremlins. In fact, after reading this, I went off to the gym and while exercising, came up with a totally new direction for my current chapter based on your advice!

    I hope you don't mind if I link to this on my blog, because my next blog post is going to pertain to plotting issues and obstacles.

  5. I love internal conflict! And great advice, telling authors to not be afraid to write themselves into corners. It's good to go to the scary place, at least for awhile, and even if you don't end up using the scary place in your final version. My toughest corner for my novel was how to get a particularly stubborn character to forgive her ex-best friends. She was really hard to convince!

  6. Link away, Lisa. And grats on the new direction!

  7. Thank you for this post. Particularly for the idea of staying within each scene and not thinking about the outcome. Seems so simple but I hadn't thought about it that way. I also love the suggestion of writing your character into a corner. Very helpful!

  8. Happy to help, Fran. I've found that so many "seems so simple!" things really help, and we're usually so close to our work we don't notice or think about them. I'm always suddenly seeing something I never have before.

  9. This entire post is very helpful; thank you!