Monday, May 24, 2010

Want to Hurt The Ones You Love? - Advice for Writers

Here's the truth.  As writers we often times become enamored with our own creations, love our characters so much we don't remember that a story without conflict is no story at all.  If you're getting rejections of your work with comments like "didn't grab me," or "too passive", or even the dreaded "not right for our list", someone may be trying to tell you something.

Perhaps you're so busy protecting your protagonist from life's pain that you're interfering with what life needs to throw at them to make your story snap.

You don't want your story to become one long drawn-out drone, like a visit with Aunt Edna on a Sunday afternoon sipping tea.  What could be more deadly dull? 

If your goal is to keep your readers turning the pages it's important for you to remember your protagonist is on an emotional journey. He or she needs to grow and that growth which is so desperately needed can be frightening and painful - and no doubt something your protagonist will resist unless you, as the writer, force them into it.

You are the great God or Goddess of this realm you've created, so act like one!  Bring on the suffering, the pain, the fear, the dread that nothing will turn out for the good and we're definitely visiting the dark side.

Think about your story and consider how 'bad' you as overseeing God or Goddess need to be. If it's a dark, heavy story your weapons are things such a death, terrible injury, psychic destruction or other horrorific events.  If the story is in a lighter vein you could go for loss of a job, loss of a close relationship or possible humiliation. Calibrating is up to you, but it has to be tough on your beloved creations in order to keep your readers turning those pages and have your ending be a satisfying one.

So here are a few ideas to help you "hurt the ones you love":

  • Put your hero or heroin in a place where he or she has to choose between to evils
  • Have a ticking clock timeframe? Unexpectedly move it up, cutting the time to accomplish goals. If you don's have a ticking clock, maybe you should introduce one.
  • Take away your protagonist's indispensable ally.  Kill off a sidekick, let him or her suffer betrayal by a friend.  Really make it hurt.
  • Really make your villain rock - make that person seem more powerful than your hero - it'll make your hero more heroic in the end.
  • You know your protagonist's Achilles' heel.  Your readers should too.  Now put an arrow through it like the original Achilles!
  • Expand the possibility of disaster by putting others' lives in the balance; by making your hero/heroine responsible for those people.

I know you can think of many more.  Ponder books you've read and what the writers have done to their characters to make the story more interesting and crackling.  Really  make your characters earn their keep.

And you writers out there - more suggestions to help your fellow writers?  Post 'em here in comments.  Love to read them.


  1. This is an important post. I know a number of writers who compose gorgeous prose, but seem terrified of putting their nice characters in harm's way. But even with a lighter toned book, we need to keep up the conflict. Whenever I start setting up a scene, I think "what could go wrong?" and then make it happen. Everyday stuff like lost luggage, bank glitches, and overzealous spamblockers can have disasterous results in the right context.

  2. Exactly right Anne, thanks for posting. It's the everyday glitches that can pep up a story by causing your hero or heroine unforeseen difficulties.

  3. I like the information you put forth and I found that I have done such as this, in my novel. Though, I have a question. What if the story you are writing is told by the villain? Because that is what my book has done. Can you still flow with the same principals?

  4. birdgirl35 - yes, the same principles apply. Your story is told by your villain, but is this truly the villain of the tale? Does your villain, in effect, lose in the end? Or, is the villain 'redeemed' in the end which would make it sort of a 'dark hero'.

    Whatever way you're going, your characters have to have real challenges, real surprises and real pain in order to engage your readers.


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