I’ve a favorite answer when folks ask me about how I write my characters: “Whatever doesn’t kill them makes them more interesting.” For me, putting my characters through terrible situations is how I discover who they are—trial by fire. Until I force them to make the tough choices and face the hard truths, I don’t truly know them.
But this can be hard for some writers. They love their characters, and being mean to them actually hurts.
Several weeks ago I had a writer ask me about this, and I know from conversations with many, many writers that she’s not alone in this struggle:
I have this character I really love. I know all the people he knows in the story hate him. My hands are shaking a bit and I don't think I can write those scenes. I was like, "Why do I have to make people hate my favorite character? It's not his fault! I don't want people to hate him." But they have a reason to hate him.What strikes me most about this situation (aside from just wanting to give the poor writer a hug), is that her instincts are in the right place. She’s created a character with conflict in the story. Other characters hate him. They have reasons to hate him. She’s done her job as a writer—it’s just hard for her to take it to the next step.
If you’re facing a similar struggle, keep in mind that novels are require tough love. In order for our beloved characters to grow and become better people, we have to dash their hopes and dreams and rip their tender little souls to pieces. What doesn’t kill them will make them stronger (and more interesting, remember that), even if it takes some time to get there.
We hurt them because we care. We want what’s best for them, and learning to deal with the horrible things life (or we) throw at them will only make them better people in the long run.
(Here’s more on discovering if you have Nice Writer Syndrome)
Unfortunately, not every writer dives into the character-destroying fray with gleeful abandon like I do. Writers tend to have sensitive souls, and writing hard, emotional scenes can take a toll on us emotionally and physically. We feel those emotions and our bodies react to them, same as if we were going through them. It’s wonderful for the writing, but not so great for the writer.
How does a writer write a scene they can't handle? Or stakes or consequences or that a bad thing happened to the character you very much care about?If a scene is hard to write, try:
Breaking it into smaller chunks: You’ll spend less time immersed in that emotion or situation so the stress doesn’t build up as much. It’ll take a little longer to get through it, but it’s more like easing yourself into a cold pool rather than jumping in.
Getting through it quickly: Set yourself a time limit and race through the scene, keeping yourself so busy writing you don’t have time to stress yourself out.
Outlining it first: Breaking it down and looking at it objectively can help you add a layer of separation between the emotional and the writing. You brace yourself for what’s to come, so getting there is easier.
Treat the characters like actors in your play: You’re not doing bad things to them, you’re asking them to read a script and act out a scene—they’re professionals giving you the best performance of their lives. They’re actors! They want the chance to show their range and dig deep into those tough emotions.
Have a talk with your character: It might sound silly, but sit down and tell your characters that it’s time for this hard scene. You’re sorry, but it’ll be over soon and there’s a reward at the end, you promise.
Prep something fun to do or funny to watch after you write the scene: Throw on your favorite movie or plan a day in the garden. Whatever helps put a smile on your face, leave time for it after a hard scene to re-align your brain and reset those emotions.
Don’t be afraid to take care of yourself when you have a hard scene to write. If you need extra time, take it.
Is it wrong that I care about the character so much that I really wish I wouldn't do an awful thing to them? That I am delivering pain and tragedy even though I know it has to happen?No, it’s not wrong. It shows you care and are able to tap into emotions that will serve you well as a writer. Just don’t let it stymie your writing and prevent you from telling the stories you want to tell.
Also remember, that hard books help readers dealing with hard issues. It might hurt you to write a tough scene, but that scene might help someone who’s really going through a similar trauma. By being real and enduring that emotion, you’re showing someone they’re not alone and that it’s okay for them to have these feelings, too (especially true for those writing young adult fiction).
(Here's more on doing the hard thing)
Being hard on our characters can be hard, but it usually makes for better books and better reads. The feeling we get from writing a tough book we know will touch readers is worth it.
How tough are you on your characters? How do you get through hard-to-write scenes?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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