Fiction Writing: Hurt Your Characters

feelingmist.jpgFear of the unknown. Fear of pain. Fear of death. Isn’t that what holds you back from putting your character through hell? But without the raw emotion that only hurting your character creates, you’ll never achieve a rich, in-depth story that grips readers – from the heart.

What makes us fear pain so much, even the pain experienced by characters that don’t exist? We are afraid of what hurts our characters because we know it will hurt us, too.

Hurting What You Love

Characters – true, multifaceted characters – are people we care about. We created them, and we shaped them to the perfection of our mind’s eye. We love them. They are parts of our heart, our imagination and our soul.

They are parts of us.

The pain they’ll experience, be it physical, emotional or mental, is pain we’ll have to experience, too. We’ll feel it as if the wound was our own, and we’ll ache with the people on our pages. Even more terrifying is the fact that because these people are parts of us, we may change more than they from the experience.

But why is that a bad thing? As an author, you control the outcome of your characters – somewhat. You delve into emotional devastation or physical agony, yes, but you control the result of the situation. You create the pain, torture your people – and you halt the hurt just as quickly.

Realize that by hurting your own characters, you are not a sadist. You are not deliberately hurting your loved ones merely to watch them suffer. You’re giving a gift. You’re helping them grow and develop. Your characters take on deeper meaning to become more alive on your pages.

They’ll become real.

Allow The Experience

Let them feel pain, and your characters will bear the scars. Do you really want a perfect character who doesn’t know what it’s like to be afraid? Do you really want people who don’t know the cost of loss or the consequence of action?

Harry once set up a scene for a character of mine. It was a plot twist that was brilliantly thought out. My character’s reaction was complete mental devastation. He almost lost that which he cared for the most. His mental reaction was to take the blame. He’d dropped the watch, and nearly paid dearly for it.

The reaction surprised Harry and me both. We hung on the edge of our seats for weeks as my character grew more terrified of letting his guard down. He stopped sleeping. He wouldn’t let his companion out of his sight. He became obsessed with protection and a penchant to kill what he feared – so he could rest.

The downward spiral was crazy. The drama was tense. And at any time, Harry and I as authors could stop it. But we didn’t, because we wanted to see what would happen next, as any good reader does.

We nearly killed both our characters.

What Does Not Kill Us Makes Us Stronger

My character worked through his issues. He and his companion went downwards together so far that we weren’t sure we could pull them back. But they reached a point of trust so deep it was almost as poignantly painful as watching the wrecked sense of security.

Penning the upward climb back to stability of life for those two characters was incredible. The mental scars remained, though my character grew stronger than before. He changed and developed into a more mature character, richer, with a quiet perception that what he loved could be lost in an instant.

He also learned that he couldn’t prevent loss. It was a painful lesson that helped him be stronger.

Each experience of fear, loss and pain that we feel helps us grow stronger, too, just as it does our characters. We become better writers. We have richer people in our novels.

So allow your characters to feel. Permit them to be real and to experience life with all its turmoil and wondrous moments to its fullest. You are not forcing suffering for the fun of it – you are handing your characters an experience.

Don’t you want to know what they do with it and who they become because of it?

They want to live. Let them. And see where it takes you both.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. Manictastic says:

    On the end, you almost sound like the guy who tells the parents to let go of the child, and in a way, that’s what a writer needs to do. Stop holding the hands of the created character and let him discover the ficticious world.
    The hurt and pain of a character are indeed often the things we fall for. We want them to survive, to breathe, to get back to normality -whatever the heck that means- and we want to identify or at least learn something out of the trip the protagonist is going through. So if you want to become a Nobel Price winner, hurt that m**********! 😀

    Manictastic’s last blog post..Deserted: Part 6

  2. @ James, another great post in this series. It really does parallel life. Real people who have been through a lot – who have experience – are able to weather things and react, overcome.

    I know that, personally, I can take on a lot more than I could when I was 15. With hurt, loss, failure comes experience.

    Similarly as you have said this will make the characters more believable.

    One of the fellows I used to RPG with was very artistic, and he would continually update the pictures of his character throughout the campaigns – adding battle scars, aging them and so forth. It was amazing to watch.

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..subterranean self worth.

  3. @ Manictastic – People are attracted to pain, disaster and suffering like voyeurs needing a fix. It’s one of the reasons that the prime-time news are so violent, graphic and popular. Likewise, for readers to connect, they have to feel that drama, pain and emotional ripping a character goes through. Lack of suffering equals a flat story.

    The emotional aspect that hurting a character puts into a novel is amazing. So is their recovery from pain, be it physical or mental. The richness can’t be achieved otherwise.

    @ Brett –

    Real people who have been through a lot – who have experience – are able to weather things and react, overcome.

    This is why many authors have trouble hurting their characters. They know it means hurting themselves, and they don’t trust their ability to weather, react and overcome.

    But the truth is they can – and they become richer people with rich stories to share.

  4. @ James – a great point, and made me think as well. Maybe this is a good thought exercise as a writer, if you put one of your characters through a situation you yourself have never experienced, it might give you strength if you *do* have to face the same thing.

    A visualization exercise… hmm…

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..subterranean self worth.

  5. One of the things we experienced when running our RPG boards were some people could take the pain while others couldn’t, and it met with some disastrous results off the boards (OOC – Out of Character).

    I’ll be writing a post about it, but some people had a hard time separating themselves from what their characters were going through. Watching the process from a GM (Game Master) point of view was frustrating to say the least.

    The thing to remember is, it’s your world, you have all the control over it. Like a bad dream, you can remind yourself “This isn’t happening to me.” and change it enough to resolve it realistically.

  6. Right on.

    Han Solo encased in Carbonite. Spock sacrificing himself for the needs of the many in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Sirius Black dying in Harry Potter.

    Of course, these are “light” compared to some of the tragic characters in Shakespeare.

    Done right, the hurt really elicit reader sympathy, which is what we want right — we want the reader to care.

    Nez’s last blog post..Why Be Wary of Super Cheap Products

  7. @Nez: Sirius dies???? Dude, I haven’t seen the movie yet!

    Just kidding – I read the book.

    I remember seeing The Empire Strikes back and actually feeling depressed afterwards over Han Solo. I couldn’t believe Lucas did that to my favorite character! But it was great!

  8. @ Harry – yes, that has been my experience too, I ran a sci-fi campaign where life could be cheap sometimes, and a few of the players had trouble detaching themselves from their characters, so I had to scale it back a bit…

    Personally I never had a problem taking my characters and charging into the jaws of death, half the fun was doing that and seeing if we could then talk our way out of it! 🙂

    @ Nez – right on indeed, great examples all. I saw Macbeth at Stratford about 15 years ago and it was something else to see it live…

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..subterranean self worth.

  9. Fun post James. You and Harry are starting to make me want to spend more time writing fiction.

    In my stories, I actually enjoy putting my characters through a bit of hell. It’s always quite an experiment to see if they’ll make it out the way I would, or whether they’ll have a mind of their own (usually the latter, and then I learn something). I’m not sure if this is because, like Brett says, I’ve been through a lot myself. Perhaps it’s just that my muse’s inner-child is psychotic? Either way, it’s a lot of fun.

    Amy – Write From Home’s last blog post..Need Clips? Write for Charity

  10. @ Amy – Ahh, and we have plans with that growing interest of writing fiction that we’re instigating…

    @ Harry – Those people who had trouble separating themselves from their characters were the ones that always had inner issues they refused to deal with and face. They were the ones afraid of pain. And they stayed stuck in a rut, both in game and in real life… sad.

    @ Nez – Thanks for catching that typo

  11. This is one of my big struggles in fiction writing. Oh, and I can’t seem to come up with a plot other than “the world is about to end.” I just feel like every plot I think of has been done to death. I’m sure you guys will be addressing plot, or so I’m hoping.

    I will hurt my characters. This is a “do or do not, there is no try” thing. I will, I will.

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..Jeff Buckley: Grace

  12. @ Melissa – Harry and I were very, very surprised at how many people do struggle with this issue, hence this post. And yup, we’re covering plot this week too.

    It’s said, too, that there are only seven types of plot. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy saves world… I forget the list. So I wouldn’t break my head over coming up with some new plot – it’s the richness of the characters and the individual string of events that make a difference.

  13. I have a real problem causing my characters pain–the ones I like, anyway. But then, I live in my own little sunshine-and-light world anyway and try not to dwell on the negative stuff that I can’t help, which makes writing it convincingly tricky. Just like descriptive passages–those are the ones that my eyes automatically skim over when reading, and so when it comes time to write one, I’m stuck! How can you write something you don’t want to even think about? (“His father has to DIE? But, that’s awful! I can’t do that!”)

    –Deb’s last blog post..Match it for Pratchett

  14. Finally, someone else who believes in mangling, maiming, torturing and otherwise finding an assortment of physical, psychological and emotional trauma to inflict upon one’s characters. Personally, I like to slowly assassinate the character then go Hamlet on the whole cast, leaving one or two members of the peanut gallery to wrap things up.

    B-chans last blog post..Perfect Irony

  15. @ B-chan – Well, we don’t go around spreading gratuitous violence just to beat our characters up… but trauma’s good for the soul. Never fear.

  16. Thank you sir James! I stumbled across this post on the sidebar, after finding your blog hunting around after “selling e-books” or some such on Google. And I laughed like a mean bad-guy! Mua-ha-ha-ha-ha! I have found another one! Another writer who knows how to make a story actually tick, combating the scourge of the boring book, who is improving the writing community one on-line writing lesson at a time!

    I just started a little website with that goal in mind: to put out there everything I know and have learned about writing for free, just because I feel like it ( Your title is a lot better than mine. Hurt your characters. Yah. Darn, I should have thought of that. I’m probably going to set up a “good links” section and I’ll have to link to this page.

  17. Another way to think about hurting your characters… is to threaten their hope. Their hope for survival, their hope for love, their hope for money, their hope for happiness.

    The central issue of dramatic fiction has and always will be stakes. At any given moment we as authors need to ask ourselves, “what’s at stake for this character, and what is threatening whatever is at stake?” All things spring from that question, because the decisions and actions that a character takes in response to the threat, the opposition, or the chance that their hope(s) will be dashed, is the essence of story, the stuff of character arc.

    Hurt them? Have at it. Threaten them, even better. Put their hope up for grabs, though, in context to the pain, and now you’ve got something to work with.

    Larry Brooks´s last blog post…Writing Better Fiction: Inside the Six Core Competencies

  18. I love torturing my characters! On my creative writing roleplay site, most of us very much enjoy putting our characters in dillemnas and showing them in unattractive lights. We love to feel their pain which is deep and meaningful, and it really does cause us to care about everyone’s characters way more than if they were merely an object of perfection and fanservice.

    My friend and I are currently working on the first draft of a novel we sincerely hope to get published. We’ve dreamt up a crazily hopeless scenario that we are stumped for a solution too – we honestly don’t know if our characters are capable of surviving it, so we are going to have to find out. Such is one of the greatest thrills of writing. C:


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