More Than You Know

On June 23, 2018, Samantha wrote, People always say “Make your characters feel pain!” In general I agree with this. Your character has to suffer throughout your story or it will be flat out boring…but how do you make his/her suffering unique? I’ve also heard that you should write about what you know, do you agree with this? And if you think that is good advice, do you have suggestions of how to stretch my knowledge and experiences to 1) sound unique/less boring and 2) not completely copy my life?

Lots of you flowed in to help.

Song4myKing: About pain. I think readers will care more about a character whose suffering seems in some way like their own, than about a character whose trouble is so far out there that they can’t really imagine it. If a character loses her best friend, it could strike a closer chord than if she is the only one in her town to survive a bombing. Not that you can’t use the bombing. But if you want the reader to care about the character’s loss and not just about her new plot challenges, you’ll have to narrow her grief down to one lost person at a time. Then make THAT person, and THAT pain become as real as possible.

Probably the key to making the character’s suffering unique is to make sure the people and things involved are 3D and unique. I talked about loss of a loved one as an example; that may be a common theme, but it becomes unique if the one gone and the one left are both well-rounded and their relationship was unique to them. Things like fears are the same way–if the character isn’t flat, and the fears have a believable basis, the suffering it causes will be just as interesting.

But whatever you do, don’t make the suffering random. Don’t kill the dog just to make the readers cry. They won’t. They’ll just be mad at you unless you have a very good reason. Think what in your story could naturally cause pain, then milk it for all it’s worth.

About writing what you know. I try not to write about things in the real world that I know nothing about. I probably will never write a story that has a public school as a major setting, because the school I went to was a very small church school. But I might sometime write about a homeschooler even though I was never homeschooled. I can more easily imagine what it would be like, because several of my siblings homeschooled for a year or two, and so did a number of my friends.

But notice I said “real world.” In the real world, someone will call your bluff if you really didn’t know what you were talking about. But in a made-up world, you are the creator, and you have the opportunity to get to know your world better than anyone else knows it.

And don’t forget that you CAN stretch your knowledge and experiences, even turning them into something a little different. I can’t really wrap my mind around the idea of losing my parents, but I did write a story that included that. I remembered the pain of losing my grandfather, and I put that pain into the story.

Christie V Powell: Well, suffering is tied to both fear and pain, so what does your character fear? What hurts them? That’ll be different for different people. Put me on a crowded dance floor with music so loud it hurts your ears–to some, that’s fun, but to me it would be suffering. I was watching a movie recently where a baby was rushed to the hospital. Everyone else enjoyed it, but I have experiences that made watching it painful. So experience will color the suffering too.

Real people are more complex than characters. Even if you were writing a memoir, your character self would not be a carbon copy. In some ways, all of your characters are based off of you and things you’ve experienced. My character Keita Sage is an introvert like me, but I also identify with antagonist Donovan’s desire take control and simplify government. Some of my real-life experiences got twisted into fiction: I once euthanized a baby chick that was born with fatal problems. It was a shocking, traumatizing experience. I twisted it into my first book, when Keita charges into battle and accidentally kills someone. In the final chapter, she discusses her complicated feelings about a gray character who did terrible things, yet she still cares for him as a person. It came straight from my feelings about one of my good friends from high school being arrested. You’re a unique human being. You’ve had different experiences than everyone else. That will come through.

In high fantasy, the whole world might be at stake. However, I just read and loved “The Losers Club” by Andrew Clements, and the only thing at stake is the main character’s summer vacation and maybe his friendship with a girl. It’s based on a realistic 6th grade bookworm. His character wasn’t really unique–he reminded me a lot of myself.

Maggie R.: So then, do you think that I can still get the reader to feel sad if it’s like ten people who die? Is it too many people do you think? Maybe I could give instances where they are each given a personality. What do you think?

Herolass: It depends on who the people are who die and how they die. If ten unnamed soldiers die in a battle I will not be too sad, but if those soldiers are all friends who died to save someone (e.g. the MC or another important character), I will be very sad.

Raina: I once heard somebody say that when writing tragedy, you should focus on the small things. Instead of writing about the horrors of war, write about a child’s burnt socks lying by the side of the road. If you want a good example, watch Les Miserables. A dozen people dying violently in a battle isn’t nearly as sad as the scene where Fantine gets arrested. (For me, at least.)

Also, I tend to find that tragedy/death feels sadder when the reader/story has some “quiet time” for it to really sink in, instead of a big action scene where the reader’s (and characters’) adrenaline is probably rushing. If you look at Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet, the ALL IS LOST moment is usually a big dramatic (and action-packed if you’re in one of the more action-oriented genres) scene where something major happens, while the DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL moment is more internal conflict, where there’s not necessarily a lot going on outside but the MC is struggling inside.

Song4myKing; They might not all need to be named, and have personality shown, but if a few of them are in some poignant way, we’ll get it. We’ll understand that they were all people, not just pawns.

Wow! You guys are fabulous! I agree with everything!

As I’m thinking about this, I’m guessing that we can even make readers care about aggregates of lives lost–though I’ve never attempted it. I think the burnt socks at the side of the road is super effective, but we can also be cerebral about death statistics. One of the reasons, I think, that people continue to care about the Holocaust is the sheer enormity of Jewish deaths: six million. Statistics have power. We can compare the death toll to other death tolls. I haven’t done this, so I’m making up statistics: Jewish deaths in the Holocaust compared to deaths in our Civil War, compared to deaths from cholera, compared to deaths from malnutrition. (I don’t know how any of these would come out.) We might look at innovations by population and speculate how many advances all of humanity was deprived of by the losses. In real life, I have thought along these lines. Naturally, in our fiction, we would stack the deck–make comparisons that point up the magnitude of the tragedy. And then, to bring it all home, we can show the effects of realizing the seriousness of the event on our beloved MC.

Suppose our MC’s tribe loses a battle with the gnomes of Mount Pothinay, and only three out of a thousand soldiers survive. Our MC reacts with shock and deep depression. She thinks of the impact on the tribe going forward. She listens in on the survivors’ descriptions of the debacle. They supply the detail that everyone above talked about. We may not know any of these characters well–either the dead or the living–but their stories will affect our MC and through her, our readers.

Underlying all this, of course, is emotion. We have to connect the deaths of the few or the many with a feeling response. If we set it up right, we can do it. Writers have super powers!

On to writing what we know or what we didn’t (past tense) know. As I’ve said here, my WIP is a historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. I knew little when I started. Many learned tomes later, I’m, if not an expert, at least a knowledgeable amateur, and, finally, I’m starting to feel comfortable moving around in this long-ago world, which may be more different from our own than any of the fantasy universes I’ve created, not withstanding dragons, fairies, and elves. For example, cities had their own fueros, charters of rights granted by the monarch. But the king (and occasionally the queen) could–and did–change his mind any old time. If a subject didn’t like something, he could appeal to the king, and the king might act in his favor. But when another objection came along, he might reverse himself. A subject could depend on nothing! For most of the medieval period, the Jews had their own courts, but if a Jew was unhappy about a judgment, he could move on to the Christian courts and hope for a better outcome. I’ve never thought about introducing such chaos–but I might in a future fantasy, because, in addition to writing what we know, we can write what we’ve learned.

My book, The Wish, is set in the eighth grade. When I wrote it, junior high (no middle schools then) was decades in the past, and, due to a special program in New York City at the time, I skipped eighth grade. So I spent a day with an eighth grade class and talked to the kids. When I wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I needed the help of my shy friends to get Addie right, since I’m an extrovert–but being an extrovert didn’t stop me from writing her.

We may have to step outside ourselves to write what we don’t know, but plenty of resources are available. For this historical novel, in addition to reading academic books, I’ve googled countless things. I had a long phone conversation about boats with an expert at the South Street Seaport in New York City. I’ve reached out to scholars specializing in the Middle Ages on the Iberian Peninsula. No one has been unwilling to help.

(For any of you who are using Wikipedia for research, I’ve found the references at the bottom of the article to be enormously helpful. Some link to other online resources and some to books that go into the topic, whatever it is, in geeky depth.)

One of the charms of writing what we don’t know is that we build bridges to what we do. In the case of the expulsion of the Jews, not all the discoveries have been happy. Prejudice then and prejudice now, if not exactly the same, resemble each other.

I encourage writers to write what we don’t know. We get bigger.

And I don’t want you readers of this blog to limit your ambitions. Whatever you want to do in your writing, I say, go for it!

In the case of writing about the late fifteenth century, I can’t get it entirely right, and not merely because records are spotty. For one thing, I don’t have twenty years for this one book, the time it would take to truly know the period. For another, the way events unfolded then has convinced me that people at the time were in some respects fundamentally different from twenty-first century humanity: the sense of self was less individuated; the stories folks tell themselves about their lives has changed; and the relation of self to society has shifted. I’m hoping to write characters who aren’t exactly like us, just dressed up in gowns or doublets and hose. But if I manage to represent them as they would recognize themselves, they may not be comprehensible to modern readers. I’m looking for a middle ground. We can’t entirely get away from what we know.

This extends to all kinds of writing. My shy Addie is unlikely to reflect everyone’s experiences of being shy. Whether we write what we know or what we learn, our words won’t precisely match what our readers know. This is all to the good. How dull it would be otherwise!

Here are three prompts:

∙ Take the defeat against the gnomes of Mount Pothinay when only three out of a thousand survive. 997 people have been killed. Resist the urge to make any of them individuals. Write a scene, and make the reader sad.

∙ Research a historical defeat. Make yourself care, and then, using your research, write a scene and make the reader care. For this, Wikipedia and Google are your friends, but you can also interview people you know who may be veterans or may have been in any kind of physical fight.

∙ Take a tall tale or a myth about an out-size individual. Make that person believable. Adapt the story. Write it all or a scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thank you for “I encourage writers to write what we don’t know. We get bigger.” I’ve seen several posts in other places insisting that writers shouldn’t try to write about people who are too different from them, because they might be disrespectful. I’m absolutely for being respectful and learning all we can about other cultures before writing about them, but I think sometimes people get afraid to even try writing outside of their own personal world-box.

  2. my friend told me she knows how to write mystery more than fantasy, but i don’t understand. To me mystery and fantasy are just the same kind of book. one has solving and another has magic, and my friend knows both and so do I. So i’m confused what she means, to me I see the genres as the same almost.

    • That is interesting. I’ve never really thought about mystery and fantasy being similar. To me fantasy always seemed, well, fantastical. Fantasy is filled with magic and all sorts of things that don’t seem quite conceivable and yet are so believable at the same time, where as mystery is much more realistically to me. There can totally be mystery in fantasy, but in general the books in the mystery genre take place in the real world rather than a made up one. The genre of mystery is usually fictional novels with intricate subplots that tie into the main plot. Fantasy doesn’t usually have as many twists as a mystery book (I’m not saying it can’t, it’s just different). To me, the idea of the genre of mystery has a much more sinister and dramatic feeling, where as fantasy is much more light and playful. That’s just the stereotypes in my mind for these genres, but I hope this helped.

  3. Does anybody have a general idea for when it’s okay to use trademarked terms in your writing, like Wi-Fi or Pepsi? I read an article once that outlined the gist of it, basically saying you should use the generic term when possible and the trademark terms you do use should only be presented in a neutral or positive light (that way the company is okay with it). But has anybody figured out when a trademarked term is necessary to enhance the details or feel of whatever scene? Rick Riordan, especially, uses lots of modern terms to really cement the timeline, what with all the mythology. Any thoughts would be helpful.

  4. Writeforfun says:

    I got a bit behind on keeping up with the blog, but I just read your last post answering my question for coming up with new story ideas. Thank you so much for writing it, Gail! (Also thanks to everyone in the comments for their additional advice – and sympathy!)

    I am extremely happy to say that I came up with a new idea, which I am thoroughly enjoying writing right now and I’m already over 40,000 words. It’s completely different than any of the novels I’ve written before – all of my previous ones took place in the real world with only a small aspect of science fiction; this new one is entirely fantasy, set in a different sort of medieval-ish world with a bit of magic. It’s been a challenge to write because it’s so different from what I’m used to, but also really refreshing and freeing to try something new!

    I do have a new question though, regarding this new story – I have one particular character who has sort of a perfect life, though he’s extremely empathetic so a lot of his conflict comes from caring about his two best friends (who both struggle with some really intense but unique problems). He’s a very sweet and caring character, but, thanks to his largely perfect life, it appears that his main personality flaw will be that he’s going to become a bit overly-confident – to the point of egotistical. He’s going to learn his lesson eventually, but it will take time. Anyway, any tips on how to make a character like this likable in spite of his obvious character flaws? Like I said, he’s very sweet and caring to those he loves, but still, he’s not perfect.

    Also, any advice for ensuring that I am making him believably flawed without going overboard to obnoxious?

    • So, if he’s a bit egotistical, what is the Lie he believes about the world that causes him to act that way? For example, does he believe on some level that he must be a better person than others because of his perfect life? If that’s the case, his empathy for others might be layered with condescension–he wouldn’t see it that way, though, or even realize he was doing it. He’ll need to learn, over the course of the story, that he’s not as important as he thinks he is.
      I feel like the most likeable characters are the ones we can identify with–and that includes with their flaws as well as their good points. We love Ella because we know what it’s like to be forced to do stuff we don’t want to do. We love her spunky rebellion against it, even when she takes dangerous risks.

    • Congrats on the new story! That sounds like incredible progress. Here are some ideas in response to your question:
      You said that the character is sweet and caring, which are likable traits. I think one way you can make that likability stick even when his confidence or ego are overbearing, is to make sure all of his actions and motives are genuine. If his love for his friends is true, and he honestly believes in them and wants the best for him, your readers will forgive him when he genuinely feels more confidence in himself than he should. Especially if he has moments, no matter how small, of growth here and there. (Think of Ron Weasley from Harry Potter – his experiences in life limited his perspective in ways that were occasionally harmful, but he was ultimately a loyal, caring friend, and learned from his mistakes.) When your readers really care about him, then his necessary suffering that will lead him to grow will be painful for the reader, in a good way (rather than satisfying, like it would be if a villain were learning his lesson). He may truly believe that he cannot fail, and learn the hard way that he can. You can build his flaw by displaying the odd irritating display of ego until it makes sense that he would make a decision based on his assumed infallibility, and ultimately learn what he must.

    • Depending on what POV the story is written from, you could show his sweetness through the other characters. For me, when the MC is talking about how much she (or he) loves another MC in the story I tend to feel what she is feeling. If the MC said ‘Oh he’s so cute.’ after the character she’s talking about punched someone for no good reason, I wouldn’t feel anything at all – well maybe I’d feel angry – but if the MC said ‘Oh he’s so cute.’ after the character she’s talking about helped pick up something some side character dropped, I would agree. So I guess I’m saying to make a character lovable you should sugar coat them. Make them seem how you want them to and don’t worry about going over board, THEN introduce their flaws. Once you’ve gotten the reader to agree that the character is sweet, THEN you need to show them that he isn’t perfect. If you do it before you show the sweetness it will have a completely different effect.
      Here is an example: The MC of the story (Roy) is lying in bed. He’s awake because he can’t sleep, and whenever he can’t sleep he tells himself he’s lame for not being able to sleep. He tells himself he’s stupid and a jerk and an idiot and he needs to pull it together. On top of all that, he’s angry at his friends and feeling sorry for himself.
      Personally I’m not a huge fan of this guy. He’s bullying himself for no reason except a little insomnia, which is just plain stupid AND he’s feeling anger towards his friends. I have no clue why he’s acting like this, but it’s just plain annoying.
      Try this: Roy was sleeping, but he woke up from a nightmare about his friends at school stranding him. He feels lonely and confused and the voices from his dream and ringing in his head “You’re a fool, Roy. You’re an idiot…You can’t even sleep at night, you baby.” He’s always been afraid that his friends would turn on him, which makes him angry. He’s also, clearly, feeling sorry for himself, and he just can’t get those wicked voices out of his head. “You’re such a baby…!”
      I feel sorry for Roy, and I resent his friends for treating him so poorly, even if it was just a dream. I’ve introduced two of his flaws here – his anger and his self pity, but they aren’t as jarring as they were in the first example.
      Now take this idea and put it into the big picture of your story. Make your MC wake up from a dream of being bullied and feel pain and fragile. As a reader I will like that much better than having him yelling at himself in bed. Giving a character a backstory makes the reader feel more. Dipping your toes in their flaws before you blast them full on will also give them more structure and have less of a jarring effect.
      I hope some of this was helpful. Good luck on your new story!

      • Thanks for all the suggestions! Super helpful, as always – I’m going to keep them in mind as I write him to see if I can get a nice balance between flawed and lovable. 🙂

  5. Writeforfun says:

    Also, I can’t resist chiming in with Christie V Powell’s question from the previous post, but because I actually love writing endings! Though, I never come up with them until I actually get there. Then they kind of just hit me.

    But I just wanted to say, I completely agree that I think it works best if the conclusion boils down to the heart of the issue of the book! It seems like every story has an underlying theme to the conflict, and when the solution addresses the true, core issue, I just find it so satisfying.

    I should probably be referencing some famous, successful book, but I at the moment the most extreme example of that that I can think of is one of my own stories (sorry!). I had some characters who wished they were normal people, and the entire conflict of the plot was about the fact that they weren’t, and all the ways that this was making them miserable. In the end, I had them defeat the Bad Guy, and in the process they also came upon something that had the ability to make them normal. It was then that they ended up realizing that they were happy as they were – at peace, at last, with the thing that they had struggled with throughout the entire book – and they decided on their own that they no longer wanted to change. Even though the surface issue was all the ways that their abnormality was ruining their lives, the heart of the problem was really their own acceptance of themselves for who they were; so I felt like that was the most satisfying ending, even though it might not have been the obvious one.

    • Thanks, Writeforfun. I don’t normally have trouble with endings, but this one is difficult. The heart of the story is that communication is the key to overcoming extremism. My main character already knows that, but she’s trying to get the rest of the people to listen her. The climax shows the ones who do listen to her are successful/survive/help others survive, while those who refuse to communicate destroy each other. She faces her own challenge: listening to another person who was particularly cruel to her. So I’m trying to juggle her climax along with the reactions of the people around her.

  6. I have a bit of a problem. I’m writing a story about a boy who’s parents die and he’s struggling to move on from their deaths throughout the book (draft, right now). In the story he meets someone who knew his mother when she was growing up, and this character becomes a huge part of the plot. She’s something like a second mother to the MC. My problem is that I find myself focusing more on the mother’s death rather than the father’s and it feels wrong. I feel like I should make the MC focus on both deaths, not just her’s. It gives the impression that he misses his mother more than his father, which I don’t want. I considered taking out the father’s death, but I don’t want the story to change that drastically. Does anyone have a suggestion on how I could tweak my story to make it appear that the MC misses both his parents equally?

    • Since it seems like a big reason the mother’s death is so important to your MC’s motivations, and therefore his thought process, is the other character you introduce, how about you have some sort of object be closely related to his father? I think that would work instead of just bringing in a character who’s important to the father, because that would sort of be the same thing as with the mom, so there’s variety. If a theme is the MC learning who his parents were when they were younger, maybe he can be searching around in the attic or basement (or wherever, I don’t know) and find a photo album or something. In my house, we have tons and tons of photo albums, and recently I finished looking through all the family ones. I’ve seen lots of pictures from when my mom was a little girl, but none of my dad until some I saw just last Friday. It was weird but interesting. Something like that can be a cool plot device.

      • Thank you for your advice, Sara! I like your first idea on having an object to remind the MC (and thus the reader) of his father. I even have an object in mind for this. Thank you!

      • Thank you Melissa Mead and Christie V Powell! I did consider making the father die earlier on in the character’s life but I didn’t think I wanted to change the story that drastically. I want the feeling of the story to be impacted by the death of both parents to make it seem more dramatic. I think I’m going to try what Sara suggested about having an object to remind the MC of his father, and possibly try to add some more flashbacks of his father to make the reader feel more for both parents.

  7. Excellent Post!

    I have a question about my novel. Most of the plot involves my MC trying to save a city from destruction. Because it’s so important to the plot, I’m trying to find a way to make the readers feel connected to the city, but I don’t have a lot of time to introduce it. Also, I can’t find a realisitc way for the MC to care about the city. She’s lived there for two years, but she has no family members living there and her closest friend comes on the quest with her. However, the city symbolizes a safe haven for her. Does anyone have advice for making the readers feel for something they have only just been introduced to?

    • Where did she live before she came to this city? You could contrast the old place with re new one: Warm terracotta roofs vs gray slate, cheerful chatter vs shrieking trains, the smell of bakeries and stables vs a tannery…

      • The city is themed around a medival castle, but it’s placed in the Rocky Mountains. My MC grew up in a small town in Colorado

          • Maybe readers would fall in love with your city quickly if the people who live in that city were good people. You know, flawed, imperfect, but the kind of clever humans a reader would want to be with. The city could be like a haven of sorts?

          • I don’t have a specific one in mind, but I imagine it might be in north-east corner of Colorado, an area that I am very familiar with.

    • Being and symbolizing a safe haven is a pretty strong reason for the MC to care, and it could be for the reader as well. Details are important, I think, especially the pleasant, homey details that give a sense of connection. And don’t forget the people. Even if she has no family or super close friends in the city, there are sure to be other people she’s interacted with in the last two years. Evan if she hasn’t thought about liking them until now, she’s sure to hate the very thought of the city being destroyed with them inside. If the reader can get just a few glimpses of ordinary life in the city, and meet a few of the people – ordinary, working people, that you’d see every day, but with little quirks that drive home that fact that these are individuals – they’ll care.

      I know I’ve seen it done well, but I can’t think of a good example right now. I think out also helps to establish this setting before bringing in the threat. You probably can threaten it first if it works best that way, but when I’m introduced to something in a story that I know is possibly gonna end, I’m tempted to hold it at arm’s length and not get attached to it.

      • Charles DeLint’s Newford stories had me falling in love with the place, even though I’ve only read the short stories so far. (and I don’t even like cities!) They do touch on some dark stuff, (Child abuse, runaways, homelessness, etc.) but he handles it in a caring and positive way.

    • Flash backs! Try writing a few scenes from the MC’s point of view that are laced with memories of her time in the city. They don’t have to express her love for the city, but they could instead express her viewing other people’s love for the city. For example she could have a memory of seeing a mother outside her house with her daughter and the daughter is running around skipping pebbles across the street and the mother is doing wash or some such everyday task. She could reflect on how much this city means to other people and how their lives are completely tied up in the city, even if it has no sentimental value to herself. Make the reader feel for the people of the city and fear their home being in danger. The people that live inside a house make it a home – the same thing goes for this city. When the reader realizes that there are actual characters inside the city they feel for them.

    • Thank you all for the wonderful replies! They have really helped me. And thanks, Gail, for putting my question on your list!

  8. Hello everyone! I had posted somewhere in here that I had aimed for finishing my latest manuscript at Christmas…and NOW it’s completed! It’s actually a good thing it took this long to complete it, because, had it not, most of the ideas and scenarios tat ended up happening wouldn’t have happened! Almost immediately after I finished, I hopped right over to another WordDoc and starting typing the sequal.

    And here’s a question: What would your advice be on publishing? Finding an agent? Are agents necessary?

    I don’t expect a step-by-step explanation, but this is my first time, and although I’ve been doing as much research as I can, I’m still kind of groping around in the dark (that was a very long-winded sentence!). Please advise!

    • I have no experience in publishing but…

      Congratulations on finishing! That’s a HUGE milestone!

      And good luck in the publishing world!

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Yes, CONGRATULATIONS! I know only the children’s book world, where you do generally need an agent unless you’re self-publishing. The agent will speed things up. I assume the same is true for adult fiction. There are many books about getting published, but be sure to read one that’s come out recently. The ground keeps shifting!

    • Congratulations! I forget- is it fantasy?

      Very few major publishers take unsolicited manuscripts. The only ones I can think of off the top of my head are Baen, DAW, and Tor. Smaller ones often do. (Ex, I went through Double Dragon.)

      I’m glad you’re doing research, because there are both publisher and agent scammers out there. As a general rule, beware of anyone who charges you a fee or expects you to buy your own books. There’s a saying called Yog’s Law: “Money flows TO the writer.” (Although I’ve found that it flows veeerrry slowly. 🙂 )

      Good luck!

    • I have absolutely no idea. I just write as a hobby, sorry! But congratulations on finishing your WIP and good luck on the squeal!

    • Wow! Congratulations on finishing! I don’t know anything about the publishing business, but… again, CONGRATULATIONS ON FINISHING!!

  9. Related to “How can I make my characters suffer?” question, another online group I’m in is talking about authors who make their characters suffer TOO much, so it ceases to have meaning for the reader. Made me think about the time I showed a scene to a pro-author friend. She read it, looked grim, and just said “I hope the villain gets what’s coming to him.”

    How do you know when you’ve gone too far in that direction?

    • Maybe when everything that happens to them for a while is suffering? This may be hard to tell, but that’s the only guideline I can think of. Have you read villains who, despite their wickedness, you almost have to root for because they’re so clever and persistent, like at either defeating the MC or just staying alive in repeated dangerous situations? If you make a villain come out on top a lot but still have those justified bad things happening, the suffering should feel gradual. Or the suffering can be minor things, added up over time to be major. This applies to any character, too, obviously.

      • I do know that there’s at least one scene in my WIP that I wouldn’t be able to watch if it were on TV, but then, I scare easily. (I wasn’t trying to make it that way, but, well, serpent-demons do upsetting things.) I don’t know if it would be as upsetting for the typical reader.

    • I would think that it would help to sprinkle in good moments among the suffering. Give the character a break every once and awhile. She’s miserable and exhausted and her best friend hates her, but a random stranger let her cut in line for lunch. Actually I’m planning on going back through one of my WIPs and look for ways to insert small acts of kindness in between some of the darker moments. I tend to be kinder to my villains than my beta readers expect. I’ve had a couple conversations with my editor where I’m trying to explain that the villain isn’t ‘that bad’, and he’s pointing out that, yes, they really are.

    • Good question! Perhaps keep your manuscript speckled with scenes that bring a smile to the reader’s face? Although this could be hard when you’re going through a dark time in the plot…How do you keep your reader from getting too board or depressed?

  10. I have a very important question: How do you cope with killing your favorite character? In my WIP I plan to kill one of the main side characters and I’m trying to make him super likable, but in the process I’m falling in love with him (no, not literally). I’m still a good ways away from his death, so I shouldn’t even be worrying about it but I can’t help it! I want the reader to be somewhat devastated when they read about his death. I want them to be so torn about it that they want to throw down the book, but they can’t because the other characters are in danger and they are worried about them as well…but what about me?! Okay I feel better now that I’ve had a good rant…but I’m still going to cry my eyes out when (if) I kill him. Can anyone relate?

    • I had to kill a character I loved once, and I stalled for WEEKS! I wrote scenes before that, and scenes after that, and finally I just had to sit down and do it.
      And I cried while I wrote it. That’s ok too.

      Sometimes it helps if I imagine that my characters are actors who all want a shot at the big dramatic scenes. Or I imagine that I’m saving the characters from their most dreaded fate, which is being boring.

    • Oh, I know what you mean. Me, Miss Cruel Author, killed a side characters fiancé, and it was so sad. He was such a goofy, funny, sweet guy. *sniff* His name was Morty, and… better stop while I can.
      I’m pretty sure Mrs. Levine has a post on dealing with character death, probably in the “character deaths” section. That would probably help. Also, remind yourself why you are killing the character, to stay focused on the story.

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