Wimp or Not a Wimp

To you brave NaNoWriMo-ers, I’m thinking of you and wishing you well!

On September 8, 2018, Writeforfun wrote, I have a character with a sort of condition/curse that causes him a lot of pain and discomfort at certain times. I have no trouble describing it because I got the flu recently (the kind where you ache so badly and you’re so weak that you can’t walk across the room), so I can envision exactly how he feels.

My problem is, I’m worried that I’m making him seem whiny or wimpy when I write about it. He never actually complains about his pain, but I keep mentioning how he’s feeling, or mentioning actions such as rubbing a sore joint, in order to get the point across; however, as I read over it, I feel like he just sounds kind of pathetic. He’s supposed to be a silently suffering but ultimately strong kid, but I’m not sure I’m achieving that.

Any tips?

Writeforfun went on the provide a sample:: The king cast an apologetic look at Oliver. “I am sorry to take you to the dungeons,” he said. “But I assure you, you are by no means a prisoner.”

Oliver could not find the courage or strength to reply, so he nodded vaguely as he rubbed his aching arms.

“It’s just down here,” said the king gently. Sir Rodrick pulled an extra torch off the wall and followed after Oliver, who tentatively descended after the king. It was a spiral staircase, and though there were no windows, there were so many torches that it was brighter in the staircase than it had been in the hallway. Oliver wasn’t sure if he had the strength to make it all the way down; his legs were throbbing, even his skin stinging as his transformation drew painfully nearer.

“I’ve put a few extra torches up for you,” said the king as he descended the stairs ahead of them. “I see no reason for it to be dark and dreary down here during your stay.”

Oliver could not find the strength to thank him, so he nodded weakly.

“Only a bit further,” said the king, who had noticed his fatigue. He shot a glance past Oliver to Sir Rodrick, but Oliver did not know nor care what he was communicating.

The spiral staircase made him dizzy and seemed to stretch on forever, but at last they reached the floor. It was cobblestone like the paths outside the castle, only this floor had no shoots of moss and grass peeking through the cracks; only dry, hard earth or, in some places, mud.

I wrote, He doesn’t seem either whiny or wimpy to me. He seems heroic. But I’m adding your question to my list, because there are aspects I think we can explore.

And Poppie wrote: You can use a cue to let the reader know what he’s going through without having to repeat yourself. For example, earlier in the story the reader finds out that his right elbow aches so badly that he can’t bend his arms, so he grabs it as a reaction to his pain. Later, when ever he grabs his elbow, the readers know what’s going on without going through the details again.

Are there times when his symptoms are better than others? You could sprinkle those in throughout the story. It would give him a break and give more weight to when he’s suffering.

Taking off my writer’s hat for a moment and just saying, I got my (senior) flu shot last month. Even before I grew so old, I presented myself for vaccination every year, because, before the vaccine was invented, I came down with the flu annually, with all the attendant misery. We can’t write when we can’t sit up!


Before I get into advice-giving, I want to point out the skillful and economical way Writeforfun sneaks in a hint that Oliver’s symptoms presage a transformation.

I am firmly in the camp of writers who believe in finishing before revising, excepting only when we (I) are so lost that going on is impossible. When I’m worrying about an element in my story, I write a note about the problem at the top of the first page  to remind myself to keep it in mind as I revise.

Often, when I finish, I realize that my worries were just that–and six other things need fixing, but not those.

Let’s assume, however, that Writeforfun has reached the revision stage. As I said above, Oliver doesn’t come across as wimpy or whiny, but I think it is possible that the reader is being reminded more than she needs to be about his physical troubles. If his well-being matters to the reader, she won’t forget that he’s in pain. This applies whether he’s our main character or our villain. If he’s important to the story, the reader will remember. A few details will go along way. In fact, the reader may intuit more suffering for him if we don’t reveal everything–

–unless for some plot reason, the reader must understand every intricacy of Oliver’s misery. If that’s the case, Oliver doesn’t have to bear the whole burden.

I have the idea that this is from a third-person omniscient POV, because the narrator reveals, not only Oliver’s pain, but also the king noticing the pain. If that’s the case, the king can be shown to think something about Oliver’s condition: how pinched his face looks, how he’s dragging one of his feet–whatever. Sir Rodrick can have an emotional response to Oliver’s apparent illness, sympathy or anger or something else.

If the POV isn’t omniscient, we can still use the other characters. Dialogue is one way. The king can remark on Oliver’s limp or his pinched face. Sir Rodrick can question whether he must be imprisoned, since he seems too weak to be a flight risk.

We can use Oliver’s actions, rather than his inner state. He can stumble or grab Rodrick’s arm, which is involuntary and not wimpy or whiny.

We can use his own words to reveal his courage, his non-wimpiness. The king can ask him if he’s all right, and he can say, “Never better,” even though the reader knows he’s in pain.

And we can use his thoughts to achieve the same end. Because he is brave, he can think, This isn’t so bad. Anyone can manage this. He can draw on some wisdom from his world, possibly a saying to help him get through–but resorting to that particular saying will show the reader how bad it is.

So we have these other strategies to reveal the shape a character is in, other than his own thoughts and feelings: the perspective of other characters as revealed through their thoughts and feelings; dialogue between other characters and even with him; and his actions, like a stumble.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC is trying to keep his dog, Fraggle, from being discovered. The stakes are high. Fraggle is not only his adored pet, but also his service dog. If she’s taken from him, he will fall apart. Write the scene so that the reader knows what’s going on.

∙ Your MC is climbing a mountain to reach the citadel of her enemy, and she’s in great emotional pain. You make up the reason. Write the scene.

∙ Your MC and your villain are discussing a truce, but neither really wants one. Both want to discover the other’s true next move. Write the scene from the POV of an omniscient narrator. If you’re inclined to try it, rewrite the scene in first person of one of the two.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. This is a great post! Sometimes I feel as if characters who are sick are to wimpy or think that everybody else’s life is wonderful, but Oliver doesn’t seem like that sort of character. I’ve never written or even thought of trying to write a character in physical pain, (Most of my characters have a boat load of emotional issues) but it does sound interesting.

  2. Thank you for the post! I so appreciate it! These are some excellent suggestions, and exactly what I needed to hear. I am saving all of your ideas – I expect I will make use of all of them (though be careful not to go overboard!) before long!

  3. Ooh, I like the advice here. In fact, I think his bravery in the face of his pain could be even more so. Perhaps he tries to never act as though he’s in pain, but there are subtle hints that all his friends can see when it’s worse today than usual. He puts a brave face on it, but no one believes him.

    But that’s my idea. Ultimately it’s up to the writer. Good luck!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Back at you! And Happy Turkey-or-Other-Dish Day to all! Among many other things, I’m grateful to all of you who make the blog a writer’s haven!

  4. Superb♥Girl says:

    I have a problem–a big one.
    This isn’t for any WIP in particular, but my writing in general. I have total confindence in the my world building, and I quite love my characters–but for the life of me, plot is something I just can’t tackle.

    • I have plot troubles too. Sometimes it’s so hard to find the solution to things, or to even create a substantial problem in the first place. My advice is lots of trial and error, exploring everything you think of, and research, both on plotting in general and on whatever your subject is.

    • It’s funny, I’m the other way around! I always start with plot! Although, you can’t really have a plot without a vague idea of the sort of characters that are in it, I suppose, so perhaps you could say that I start with characters as well as the plot. For me, I have to know what the story is about before I can really develop any of the characters or bother with the world it’s in. The exception to that would be the sequels I’ve written to one of my original books, which naturally came with a pre-made cast of characters; but even those I only wrote because I had a story in mind that they happened to fit into nicely.

      Now that I think about it, I think my current book may be the first one I’ve intentionally started without a plot already formed in my head – after my computer crashed and I lost my previous stories, I needed a fresh start. There are certain personalities and themes that I’m drawn to in stories, so I tried to think of a character and plot that would include one – in this case, a misfit with self-confidence issues who must learn to accept himself – and figure out what sort of plot would explore that. I started thinking of things that would challenge and grow my character as an individual, as well as the grand-scheme conflict (in this case a looming war) to introduce some bigger dangers. I thought of how a few more characters could help further the story, even bring a bit of their own into it…and from these fragments I pieced together the idea for my tale. As the story came along, the characters kind of evolved into it. Once I had the story and characters, I came up with a world to put them in. I don’t know if that’s backwards – but it worked for me, at least!

      Perhaps I begin with plot because I am a planner; I simply must have at least a general idea of where my plot is going. If I don’t, I’ll simply meander into nothing but pointless dialogue before giving up. Having a concept of where I’m going keeps me on track; the surprise for me, then, is seeing exactly how things unfold, how conversations go, unexpected subplots that pop up, and the occasional character that surprises me and breaks out of the plan I had set.

      But, at least for me, it all starts with an original plot!

    • I’m a planner too–I can deviate when ideas strike, but I need to have at least an idea in my head of where the story is going. I really like KM Weiland”s story structure, which is free on her website. SAve the Cat has a similar method–your library may have a copy of the book. They give you a framework to help control pacing, make believable character arcs, and incorporate theme.

      • KM Weiland’s website has a lot of ads for her printed books, but all of the information is available for free on her blog. Her series on Story Structure starts here: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/secrets-story-structure-complete-series/
        And her series on incorporating character arcs into plot starts here: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/write-character-arcs/
        Last year, I started a story just pantsing, and it turned into a huge mess that’s taken me over a year, so far, to edit into something publishable. I did two for NaNo this year that are a lot smoother and will take a ton less editing, because I have the story structure in place. So having an organized system works a lot better for me.

        I also liked the book “Story Genius” by Lisa Cron, which has a similar system for using character to create plot.

      • I tried to leave a comment with the links, but the computer didn’t like that. KM Weiland’s website is called helping writers become authors. I especially like her “how to write character arcs” series, which talks about the fusion between plot and character. There are a lot of ads for her published books, but all of the information is free on her blog here.

        I also enjoyed “Story Genius” by Lisa Cron, which has a similar organizational system for combining plot and character.

        Last year for NaNo, I tried to write pantser-style and ended up with a huge mess that’s taken over a year to put into some semblance of order. This year I made sure I had my story structure where I wanted it, and I’ve written two novels in two months that are going to take much less editing. So, having a structure system works really well for me.

    • Unfortunately, I don’t have nearly as much time to write as I would like, so I usually have mulled the story around and around in my head and gotten a good sense of what will and what won’t work before I even start to write. Some of my stories have sprung from an intriguing world building idea. One story comes from one of the biggest threats my characters in that world face, just because of the nature of the people and their environment. Another one came out of my wondering how this environment came to be, thousands of years earlier. Both of these have a fairly obvious place to begin, and I know where I want it to end up.

      But the two stories I’ve gotten most excited about developed a little less logically. The seed ideas for both of them were dreams. Basically, when I woke up, I had a scene in my head complete with action, characters, and emotion. And I wanted to figure out what in the world was going on, and it had to make sense in the wide awake daylight. I think the emotion helped. For one thing, it made me care. For another, it gave me a direction to start searching. I thought of a number of different scenarios and discarded them, because they didn’t really pack the right emotional wallop. Either that, or they had the right emotion, but lacked in the common sense department. Then once I had a context that seemed to fit, that context was the plot. It was a conflict, and it had to have a beginning, and it had to go somewhere. And I had to follow it and figure out where I wanted it to end up.

      I haven’t yet tried to stir up this process artificially, but I want to try it the next time I’m stuck, or wanting to start something new. Here’s how I might try it: take a snippet of overheard or imagined conversation or a little action with it’s reaction, add two or three faces from a WIP or from random strangers on Pintrest character boards, pick an emotion (a negative one), add a second emotion that could be connected but is not a synonym to the first one, mix well, mentally narrate the scene, then stare out a window on a rainy day and ask “Why?”

      Remember, no idea is too crazy to play with! The freedom of mental narration is that no one else can possibly read it but yourself. No one else will know how many weird possibilities you entertained before you found what worked.

  5. I mainly start with the character and the world as well. As a plantser, I tend to come up with plot as I go, starting with just one main idea – like “hey, it would be cool to write a story about a spy! – and building it up and branching out from there. Hope it helps!

  6. So, I’ve recently decided that my book would do great as a trilogy, except I want one of them to be about what happened before the first book, from a different characters POV. Would that be too confusing for readers to have a book that’s out of place in the series? I really like where the idea of it is going, I just don’t know if it would be too confusing.

    • C.S. Lewis did that. The Chronicles of Narnia were written all out of order. Now they’re numbered chronologically, instead of in the order they were written. The only problem I see with it is that someone I know started to read the “first” one, The Magician’s Nephew, first, and was majorly turned off of the whole series because people were “jumping into pools and getting into other worlds” and he thought it was too weird. I really think he would have liked The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe better, but who knows. So that’s one way it’s been done, for better or for worse – switching the recommended reading order to the chronological order.

      The other possibility would be to keep your first book as first in the series, so long as you make it clear that the second one happened earlier. Maybe you could show this by events, or ages of characters? Or more overtly, by a “story frame” where a (gasp!) prologue (or brief first chapter) shows your character in “present time” mulling over events of the past, then you jump into that past with the next chapter.

      • That’s a really good idea, about the story frame. The book could be about the character telling her own story!!! Thank you for that.

    • What you could do is write the main books, but when it comes to get it published you count it as me of a prequel then actually part of the series, so you can avoid any/all confusion. I’ve kind of had the same problem with as part of the story I think is worth telling, but takes place 10-20 years before.

  7. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    This is kind of a strange question, but recently I’ve been thinking of future job options. Of course I really want to be a writer, but writing enough to support myself in the future isn’t a guarantee. I’m stumped for other jobs I would like to have in the future, but preferably they’d have something to do with writing or something else for a creative mind.

    • I’m in your same boat right now! There are a lot of jobs that have to do with writing in different ways, depending on what you’re interested in. Publishing (which I’m planning to go into) is probably the most obvious. You can either work in the editorial side where you acquire manuscripts, edit them, and prepare them for publication, the marketing side where you sell the finished book, or the production/design/miscellaneous where you actually create the finished book and make it look nice. Agenting is also an option. Teaching English/Creative Writing is probably the most popular option among writers. Rick Riordan was a middle school English teacher before he transitioned to become a full-time writer. You can go into journalism if you’re interested in nonfiction writing. And I don’t mean only writing news articles like the New York Times. There’s a lot of topic specific journalism opportunities, such as sports, entertainment, or sites like Buzzfeed. Copywriting for businesses is similar. I believe the film business also has writing related jobs, but I don’t know much about that. If you want to be independent, you can become a freelance writer/editor. I know a lot of writers who have a freelace editing business on the side. If you’re interested in reasearch (whether in the sciences or humanities), the process is actually pretty similar to creative writing. You find a topic you’re interested in that hasn’t been explored yet, do research into it, and finally write up your findings to share with the world. I should mention that research typically goes hand in hand with teaching, since most researchers are colllege professors doing research sponsored by their university.

      But honestly, don’t feel like you have to find a job that’s related to writing. You can find a job in some completely random area that you’re excited about, and write on the side. Gail worked in public service, I believe, and I’ve known writers who were engineers, marine biologists. Do whatever you’re passionate about.

      Hope this helps!

      • I agree with Raina. My dayjob involves so much jargon and passive voice that I feel like I have to flush out my brain before writing fiction, but I enjoy it, and it gives me medical insurance and pays the bills so I can write stories without having to worry about how much money I’ll get for them.

  8. May I share some good news? I just got a full manuscript request from an agent!

    I realize that actually getting an offer of representation is still a long shot, but it’s exciting to get this far.

  9. Who else here did NaNoWriMo? I won my third NaNoWriMo yesterday despite a late start due to story problems and an unusually packed schedule, and I’m really excited to keep moving forward. My book is far from done, of course, but I think I’m finally in the flow of it now.

  10. I saw something on pinterest today that struck me – someone had posted how funny it is that some authors seem to forget that all characters need to have their own life. She pointed out that lots of authors forget this and make their supporting characters, antagonists especially, obsessed with the main character. They seem to be constantly seeking out the MC, obsessing over ways to get the MC’s attention, talking about nothing but the MC to all of their friends. The writer jokingly called it “Draco Malfoy Syndrome” in reference to the Harry Potter books, but I’ve read other books that are the same way. Has anyone else noticed this before, and does it bother you? I’ve always justified, in my mind, that fictional bullies (in books and TV shows alike) pick an arch nemesis and then devote their lives to hating that person, and that’s that; but I don’t actually know any real people that have been that way, come to think of it. Thoughts?

    Thinking of my own WIP, I’m excited to say that one of my antagonists is horrible to everyone equally; she doesn’t really obsess over anyone in particular, she’s just generally a mean person (and hates herself for it – she’s a lot of fun to write!). But one of my others is completely as this pinterest poster described; he pretty much gets up in the morning and plots ways to make one of my MC’s miserable. That’s not natural, is it? He’s got a political reason for being jealous of and hating said character, but still…

    • Well, people DO get obsessions, but characters are generally more interesting when they have their own varied reasons for doing things.

      (When my characters do things only because I want them to, not from any motivation of their own, I call it “leaving my fingerprints on the story.” Readers should forget that I exist while they’re reading.)

    • Good point. I may be guilty of that in one of my stories, too. The villains do have a reason to be obsessed with the MC, but I probably shouldn’t count on them ignoring her allies for the sake of focusing on her.

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