When Bad Things Happen to Good Characters

On July 23, 2014, Lex from Bohemia wrote, I am having a hard time entering into a scene I know will be difficult for my characters. I’m shying away from it because it is what needs to happen, but I’m afraid to do it to my characters. Any thoughts? How do you prepare yourself to write the hard stuff?

J. Garf responded with: I don’t know of a way to prepare necessarily, but there’s a chapter about it called “Suffer!” in Mrs. Levine’s book Writing Magic. In it she talks about how if you’re cruel to your characters, your readers will care more about them and how it’s going to end. I tend to be a pretty mean writer (I’m sure that if my characters were real people they’d punch me in the face for all the stuff I put them through), but I still have the same problem sometimes. Try finding something about your characters that can make them as annoying as any real person. If you focus on that, it might not be as hard to make them suffer.

I like this, J. Garf! Relieve our own suffering by making our characters irritating! We don’t even have to actually give our MC annoying traits in the story; we can just imagine her whining whenever any little thing goes wrong. Then we can snarl happily, “If you think that was bad, take this!” and drop a boulder on her leg.

As some of you know, I’ve been working on a prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre, although I’m putting the work aside now that the fall semester of poetry school has started. *SPOILER ALERT!* A few times, I’ve gone back to Two Princesses to refresh my memory of some of the details. The first time I did this, when I reread the end, much to my surprise, I wept!

*SPOILER ALERT!* continues. When I wrote the book, I could have let Meryl live. But that ending seemed flat. I believed the reader would think, Oh, okay. Ho hum, what should I read next? And I didn’t want to completely kill Meryl off, either. Yes, other citizens of Bamarre would benefit from the cure, but Addie would have failed in her personal quest, so I found a middle ground that came to feel inevitable.

*SPOILER ALERT!* still continues. However, at one time the prospects were good (not any more) for a Two Princesses movie, and a script was written. The producer opposed my ending, so it came out completely happily. The screenwriter did a good job, and it worked. But I still prefer my way.

The point here is that we don’t always have to be totally brutal to our characters. We can make them suffer somewhat. The boulder can land on a toe rather than on our MC’s entire leg.

However, sometimes we do have to be totally cruel. Then we may have to bite down hard on a cloth while we write–to keep from screaming. We may have to take frequent breaks, but it must be done.

In the new book, I recently had to make my MC go through something awful, and at the end of the awful thing I piled on something else just as bad. However, it took me a while to sit down to do it. I had to write notes in which I wondered if I could get away with something less terrible. But when I finally faced the music and started typing, I had fun, because the scene has tons of energy, and I could see it so clearly.

So there’s that comfort. Those moments when everything goes horribly wrong for our beloved MC come to vivid life on the page, and our writing is likely to be our best.

Another *SPOILER ALERT!* This one is for Ella Enchanted. I wrote Ella about six and seven years after my parents died when I was in my late thirties. As I wrote about Ella’s feelings after I killed off her mother, I included some of my emotions about my parents’ deaths. That was a relief, to re-experience a very sad time in a gentle way, cushioned by fiction. Oddly, when I gave my grief to Ella, I felt like I had a companion in it. Comforting.

And that’s another strategy: to use our own experiences in the misery that we inflict on our characters. We heighten the realness of what our characters are going through, and we validate our own history.

We can also comfort ourselves. If we’re not writing a tragedy, we can keep in mind the final victory and the lessons learned. We can think of bad things that have happened to us that turned out well in the long run, that we learned from, that strengthened and shaped us.

In addition, we can talk to our characters in our notes and prepare them for what’s to come, the way a doctor or a dentist does when she’s about to inflict a little pain. “You’ll feel a prick,” she says, and we get ready, and it’s much better than being taken by surprise. Moreover, we may learn something about our characters. These conversations won’t appear in our story, but they can help us deal out the bad stuff. Might go something like this:

Lanie, in a minute I’m going to drop a boulder on your leg. It’s going to be extremely painful.

Why would you do this to me? Do you hate me?

No. Actually, I love you. You’re my favorite character.

I’d hate to be a character you dislike. So why are you doing it?

You’ve used strength and agility in the past to accomplish great things, but you haven’t learned other skills that will bring you the success you want most. Being laid up will force you to engage with the people who are important to your goals. You’ll learn that you have to depend on others. The lesson may hurt more than the boulder. Sorry!

Will I be able to walk and run after I recover?

You’ll have a limp forever.

Silence. Then: But I’ll still be able to throw a spear, right? You won’t mess up my arm or my eyesight?

They’ll be fine.

Okay. Do it already.

Here are four prompts:

• Write the conversation with your character about what’s going to happen.

• Rewrite the conversation with your character about what’s going to happen and make your character so irritating that you don’t mind doing it!

• Your MC’s BFF tells him that she never liked him. Write the scene. Be sure to include your MC’s emotions. If you like, continue and write what comes next.

• Your MC’s beloved dog Woof gets the power of speech. He tells your MC that he dislikes her and that everything she does annoys him and always has. At the animal shelter he was hoping to be picked by anybody but her. He’s just too polite to bite. Write the scene. (This may be the worst thing you can do to a character!) Again, include your MC’s feelings, and keep going if you like.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. This was a great post–very interesting thoughts! I was actually thinking about this topic today!

    One thing I'll say. The latest book that I finished writing, there was a very tense and awful scene for the climax, and I piled on as much hurt as I could handle doing to the characters, but I held back a bit. Even that was awful and I almost couldn't. But I found that a couple months later, when I was editing, that since I had read the scene over several times, I was used to it. So I was able to add in some more problems to draw out the peril and seriousness of the situation even more. So in that case, if I had tried to do it all at once, I wouldn't have been able to handle it (even if my characters could! They're much braver than me. ;)), but by adding to it later after not going too much into it, I was able to make it a better scene. So there's my contribution for what it's worth…

    One thing I've been worrying about lately is high stakes and peril and stuff. I have a hard time making it so that we're actually WORRIED about my characters. I think mostly I let them off too easy, and that's something I'm struggling with… Um. That was random.

    And… well, it's still the 17th where I live… So happy birthday, Ms. Levine! 🙂

  2. This reminds me of a time when I was in Junior High and my best friend and I were co-writing a story just for fun. We got a notebook and we would each write three paragraphs in turn before handing the notebook over. As our story progressed, I noticed that my best friend was much harsher on our MC than I was. I would get the notebook back and find that the MC had been attacked by a tiger and had broken ribs and other injuries. At the time I was the kind of writer who wrote very "happy" stories (even though there was almost always a kidnapping of some sort), in that my characters didn't get hurt very often and got off pretty easily. Later I realized that if I didn't let anything happen to my characters, there would be no story–at the very least, there would be a dry and boring plot line. Now I don't have as much of a problem with it. Part of it is because I use writing to face some of my fears. I have my characters encounter my fears and triumph and learn from them, so I can do the same. I suppose it's therapeutic in a way. I think of the character as an extension of myself, so that I can face my fears and gradually overcome them (I realized once I was an adult that that was why my stories had so many kidnappings. I was subconsciously using stories to help face my fear of being kidnapped). Anyways, I'll stop with the rambling now. Just thought I'd put in my thoughts about the subject.

  3. Happy after-birthday!

    I literally "faced the music" with a scene like that once. My MC, who was 6' tall but only 10 years old, was being horsewhipped. I was having a terrible time writing that scene! Finally I put on the soundtrack to Wicked and cranked up the song "Loathing" really loud, and I was able to write the scene.
    (Of course, now I flinch when I hear the song, but that's a different issue. ;))

  4. Hah, I have trouble doing things to my characters too. Only, I can do fairly major things to them (Their loved one die, they have their fingernails ripped out by the roots, they have the skin peeled off their arms and backs [that one is a bit much, even for me, and I'm not especially averse to violence] they get their noses broken, and teeth knocked out, they sometimes even die, although, on a bit of an off topic, it is very hard for me to break their bones for some reason, getting mauled by a massive half-cat beast, sure, serious scarring on the face, sure, keel-hauled, great! Break their ankle: NOOOOOOO!) I just can't do the small things to them. Like, I can't purposely put them on a journey without everything they need. I can't let them NOT have a lighter when they need one. I can't let them forget that book with the directions, I can't let them go off without dental-floss if I know their going to need it! A little while ago I realized that that was because I myself have to be prepared for every little thing too. Falling down a set of concrete stairs, spraining an ankle and scraping all the skin off the top of my foot, sure, whatevs. Going without the proper pair of shoes for hiking NOOOOOO! Seriously, anything but forcing my characters to go hiking in ballet flats. ANYTHING! I am way over-prepared for everything. No kidding, the other day I found out that a bag that I was holding that contained a dictionary, a thesaurus, two notebooks, two file folders and my sandals (I like going barefoot better than anything else) weighed less than my purse. I took stock of my purse, and no joke, here's what I found: Lipstick and mascara (which I never actually use), candy, a notepad and six pencils, three ink pens and a few pieces of what used to be pens (I take pens apart and suck the ink out of them, it's a terrible habit of mine), batteries, flashlight, two hairbrushes, three combs, a lot of crumpled paper, my glasses inside their case, a zip-lock bag full of assorted teas (WHAT?) my bible, a pair of socks (again, WHAT?) some knitting, several used up tubes of chap-stick, a darning needle, a thimble, a pair of scissors, a pocket knife, several foreign coins, (to bribe a Russian taxi-driver with?) a paperback, a mini notebook with notes on how to speak Spanish–GOOD GRIEF! And that was only some of what I unearthed! Now I know why I can't do the little things to my characters, I can't do little things to MYSELF!

  5. Gail – happy birthday, a little late!

    Elisa – that is so funny about all the things in your purse! That would be a fun character trait for someone in my story…

    I have a big, long question here, that's off topic. I tried to figure out how to make it shorter, but I couldn't. Here goes…

    I’ve been meaning to start writing the third book in my trilogy for months now, but I’m stuck, and a big part of it, I think, is that I can’t seem to keep my characters interesting enough for a third book. Perhaps that doesn’t make sense. You see, in book one, my MC, Ben gets kidnapped by the five others, grows to accept them, and then gets rescued by them – and he ends up marrying one of them. In book two, all six of them are the MC’s, and they all go on a top-secret mission with a couple CIA agents to save the world, and learn how awesome they can be. In book three, all six of the MC’s have to track down a mysterious criminal who is trying to capture Ben and his wife’s daughter. This’s where I run into trouble. Half of the book is about Ben’s daughter (that half comes with its own set of problems). The other half is about the six of them trying to catch the stalker, but the whole thing just doesn’t seem new and interesting enough. I mean, we’ve already learned about these characters and seen them reacting in regular life, and we’ve seen them in action and being awesome. What now? I know my characters and I love them like they’re my family, and it’s not that I’m really bored of them; but I can’t think of anything that will really keep me, or the reader, motivated to keep watching them. Is there any way to keep well-known, previously established characters interesting and surprising? Does anyone understand what I’m trying to ask?

    • Yes, I do get what you're trying to ask!
      First idea off the top of my head is: if you're getting bored with the characters, maybe they're getting bored with each other. It sounds as if they've been together for a long time. Even if they're close, so much time together can give rise to conflicts (petty or otherwise). Just think of sibling rivalry.
      I feel like there's something more I could say, but I lost that thought. I'll come back later if it returns to me. 🙂

    • I know where you're coming from! I'm having a similar problem with a trilogy of mine… I'm trying to write the second book, but in the first one I already had monsters and trying-to-save-the-world, so going down a step to minor mysteries seems like an anticlimax, and I'm worried about the third as well… PLUS all the characters know each other now, and them not being sure about one of the characters the first time around was the other main source of tension… I'm trying to add some excitement, and keep a little leftover tension between the characters, plus I have some pretty big surprises the character has been keeping from the others, one for this book and another for the third. But I don't have much to contribute, advice-wise, since I have the same problem! 😛

      (Good thoughts on rivalry, Michelle! 🙂 I will have to think on that… And WOW I didn't know you were over here! Awesome. ^_^ *is behind on blog-reading*)

    • ^_^ Thanks, Deborah!
      I saw your first comment and had to grin. It's fun 'bumping into' people you know on blogs you didn't know they read. (And yes, I've been over here for…at least a couple years already. Always good advice to be found!)

    • Writeforfun, maybe you could add a new member to the group, one that not everyone knows or completely trusts. Perhaps a former criminal who worked with the "mysterious criminal" in your book. S/he could end up being either good or bad, but it would help up the tension whichever way you go.

    • Michelle Dick – great idea – I'm already trying to think of ways I could add tension among them…
      Deborah O'Carroll – I'm glad to know that I'm not the only person who has had this problem!
      Elisa – Great idea! And I think I even know who I could use!
      Gail – thanks, I can't wait!

  6. This was probably not the point of the post, but I'm wondering whether I should torture my characters more. I don't think any of them have been injured recently…or at least not in a lasting manner. Something to work on as a writer, I suppose?

    Also, belated happy birthday, Ms Levine! 🙂

  7. Is it bad that I have no trouble afflicting my characters? "Your sister dies! Your uncle dies! Your boyfriend dumps you after you break him out of jail-and dies! Okay, the prologue's over. Time for chapter one."
    Sometimes it helps to make your character go through a pain you've experienced. I had horrible migraines in ninth grade. I've often wondered how I would survive in a world without Advil. So the Medieval-ish story I wrote that year featured a villain with chronic migraines.

    • You are totally my kinda writer. Seriously! I do that too: "Off the dad! Off the mom! (who need parents anyways?) Off the siblings! (Siblings are pests, right?) Now off the DOG! All as the MC barely manages to survive by clinging to a windowsill with her fingernails. Also, just to round it out nicely, make the MC take a death defying leap from a twenty-story building (off the top floor). All in a days work." *dusts off hands* Also, YOU HAD MIGRAINES TOO? Wow. And migraines would totally motivate villains to go on "destroy the whole world all in one go" sprees, wouldn't they? (Only I still have them, sometimes. I shall have to turn my mind towards the whole destroying-the-world thing while I'm having one of them. I'd probably come up with a capital scheme. Involving fire, massive explosions and lots of sharp shiny things.

  8. What do you do if you have an awesome setting and an amazing main character, but you don't have a story to go with them? I have an incredible MC running around in my head, but I don't know what to do with him. Any ideas?

    • J. Garf: this happens to me all the time!! What I usually do is think of what I can do to make this main character miserable–what kind of horrible thing can I do that will disrupt his/her life and send them on an adventure? I usually base it on something to do with the setting (are they attacked by mysterious people on dragons? Is there a famine?) or their personality (does someone they love get kidnapped? Do they run away to prove/escape something?). Sometimes my story evolves to the point where I end up changing it and never using that original adventure-starter, but it gets my story moving and gets me thinking about it.

      I hoped this helped a little! I hate when I have a character without a story!! 🙂 Good luck!!

    • Urgh, I know where you're coming from. When this happens, I usually look through my story stash and find a few undeveloped ideas that I have had run through my head, and then I stitch it all together with a little (well, more like a lot) of imagination. Or, if that fails, I think on it for a while, and then I create a goal for my character and then make him/her accomplish it.

  9. i just stumbled on your blog today, and lo and behold, a post mentioning two princesses, one of my favorite books!! i always wondered though, how is bamarre pronounced?

  10. I'm a bit stuck in my story. I need a really good (meaning a very bad) villain, and mine is just not making the cut. How do I fix this? I've looked around a bit online, and everywhere I go they just say things like: Villains think what they are doing is the right thing (NOT true, a LOT of villains know they are doing the wrong thing and do it anyways). Basically, I'm just getting a lot of psychology stuff that says "Oh, they're not REALLY bad people, they are just doing what they think is right", and that is not actually what really goes on most of the time (or not realistically anyways, maybe in fiction), and while there are a few such cases, they are the minority. When a person does something wrong, they KNOW it's wrong (If they have a conscience anyways, and even if they've deadened it, they still know it's wrong, they just don't care so long as it benefits THEM). So what I'm asking is how do I make a realistic bad-guy. I don't want a fundamentally good person who is accidentally doing wrong things that he thinks are good, I want a BAD-guy!

    • Maybe he would be more hate-able if he planned out his malicious acts before hand, and thought about the consequences, and all the people that would be hurt by his actions, and then either truly didn't care about that, or even took pleasure in the thought. That's the sort of thing that makes me hate a villain.

    • What makes readers hate Hattie is how horrible she is to Ella. Readers are likely to hate a villain if he or she makes our MC miserable–as long as they care about the MC. You might reread my many posts about villains, which I hope will help. If not, please ask follow-up questions.

  11. I have a problem in my story. My three MCs get trapped in a fairy world, and they need to obtain the fairies' magical Gem in order to save their own world. The Gem is the most important thing to the fairies, however. My problem is that I can't figure out how they're going to get it! They have already asked the queen, and she's not going to let them have it. I don't want them to steal it or do anything that will make readers not like them, but I don't know what else to do! Plus, this is only about one-third of my whole book, so it can't be SUPER complicated. I mean, I do want it to be difficult, but it can't be a whole plot.
    Any ideas?

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