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Wednesday, December 9

Why We Should Do Bad Things to Our Characters

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

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?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book 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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  1. If you care that much about him, your reader will too. Love this. The last novel I wrote, it was All. I. Could. Do. to plant my fanny in the chair and write the 'Ugly Scene'. Wish I would have read this before I white-knuckled my way through it

  2. Another savable blog post! Thanks, Janice.

  3. Oh the humanity of not wanting to put a favorite character through the ringer. It's understandable to want to keep that fave out of harm's way, but stories are made of conflict, tension, and resolutions. Those things come about due to what we put our through.

  4. What about when you have to actually *kill* a character you really like?

    1. Grit your teeth and do it. It's easier when you know it's the right thing for the story. I had to kill a loved character in Darkfall, and when I realized it, I told one of my crit partners. She gasped and said "No, no XX!" But as soon as I told her why she agreed. "Yep, XX has to die"

  5. Great post, even if it wasn't for me. I'm the kind of person where putting a character in danger and making them uncomfortable brings a smile to my face. so my question is: Is it wrong that I care about the character so much that I love to inflict pain and conflict on them?


    1. I guess I'm too tender with my characters. So I tried to toughen up & let one of them die.

    2. Katie, that's me as well. Nope, not wrong. Like Bonnie said above, you love them, so you know readers will love them, which will make all that pain mean so much more to readers.

      Gale, good for you!

  6. I'm going through right now. My main girl was slacking in professional motivation. So I thought I'd add a new character that would end up dying a short while later. They went to school more than a decade ago, then he moved out of state & was forgotten. He only came back for a big weekend event where they chanced to meet. Everything about him is a sweetie. With years of hard work, he has since managed to go from poverty to riches. But he never forgot where he came from. She was supposed to make some stupid mistake. After his death, she was to be super motivated not to take progress for granted. I even decided he'd die after he'd been away for weeks on one of his many business trips out of the country. I still haven't figured what stupid mistake she does, because it seems she's falling for him. It's not supposed to be that way! Once she gets her act together, there's another love interest I have in mind for her. Where did I go wrong... again?

    1. Or did you go right? Just think how much more his death will mean now. The motivation will be so much stronger for her.

  7. “Whatever doesn’t kill them makes them more interesting.” So true! Because when characters have to act and make decisions (especially tough ones) ... this is when their character is revealed in the most meaningful and memorable ways.

    Excellent tips here! Generally, I'm not shy about making things hard, even awful, for my characters, but in one manuscript I did have a scene that was difficult for even me to get through (probably because it was very close to some personal experiences I had. Didn't WANT to write this scene, but I could see it was where the story was heading, and I knew I couldn't cheat. Still, I cringed while writing the scene and I cringed every time I had to edit/read through it again.) So yes, acknowledge when a scene is hard to write. And make sure you do what you need to get through that scene and give it your best. Our stories won't be as resonant or genuine if we skip the scenes that are painful or scary to write.

    --Sam Taylor, AYAP Team

  8. I have the opposite problem! I love to put my characters in a dark place, to make them make terrible choices and suffer the consequences. I like to start with a deeply flawed character, break them apart and turn them into a decent human being. Now that I think about it, I rarely reserve a true, unmistakable happy ending for them. I need them to keep scars to make sure that whatever happened to them made them a better person, but not a different person.
    Or, like Leonard Cohen would say in Anthem:
    "There is a crack, a crack in everything
    That's how the light gets in."

    1. Love it. Sounds like a great way to create great characters.