Letting Bad Things Happen to Your Characters


Are you afraid to let bad things happen to your characters?

I just read The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton, and I was duly impressed. Not only was the writing amazing, but I marveled at how far Hamilton lets his character fall, how deep he digs the holes for his protagonist. Just when you think another bad thing can’t happen, it does.

For example, the main character (no spoilers here, I promise):

  • Is mute
  • Is in jail in chapter one
  • Loves a woman but is not with her
  • Is manipulated by thugs
  • Is forced to do back-breaking labor
  • Has a traumatic childhood
  • And lots more!

I could go on, but I won’t. The point is, Hamilton is not afraid to really screw with his protagonist in this book, and yet he still somehow delivers a satisfying finish.

I personally marvel at this because it’s often hard for me to let awful things happen to my characters. I care about them, after all! This is usually flagged by my editor as the “almost happens” text. For example:

  • A character is in a car, which is ALMOST in an accident, but, whew, at the last minute everyone is saved.
  • A character ALMOST dumps her boyfriend thinking he cheated on her, but then she finds out that he didn’t and everything is fine.

Great, the character is wholly in tact, but who wants to read about someone like that? No one. That’s why we as writers have to up the stakes.

But how?

One writer I know had such a hard time letting her characters suffer that she created a third-party narrator, who could tell the tragic tale of this family FOR her. It gave the writer enough distance to be able to let the chips fall where they needed to.

The Great Donald Maass says to up the stakes by looking hard at your plot and figuring out what your character loses, then adding to it. For example, is your character devastated by a divorce? Fine, now take away their house, too. Is your character a dancer? Give them a leg injury. It’s brutal stuff, but it makes for such compelling reading.

Forcing your characters into those tragic holes can be hard – but helping them dig their way out is totally satisfying.

[Image credit: TheChive.com]


    September 28, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    An editor I know refers to this as “grabbing your hero by the back of the head and shoving her, face-first, into a meat grinder.”

    That is a horrible, graphic image, but also one that is unforgettable.

      September 28, 2011 at 3:45 pm

      Obviously doing something wrong. For real pathos it should be “feet-first”. C’mon, up the stakes, people!

      While I don’t disagree with this technique in principle, I prefer to keep the angst to human levels (think ‘Deep Impact’ as opposed to ‘Armageddon’). Otherwise you’re writing about either a caricature or a superman.

    Claire Caterer
    September 28, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    Such a great point about the “almost happens” text–this is something I’m guilty of also. It helps to put a tag like this on it. Now I can go through my plot points and pinpoint where this occurs. Thanks! Great post.

      October 3, 2011 at 6:31 pm

      Hi Claire, so glad you found this helpful! I’m really guilty of “almost happens” text too, and it’s a good reminder to, as Marc and Margaret said above, put our characters into the wood chipper! Yikes!

        October 3, 2011 at 6:32 pm

        Sorry, I meant meat grinder. I was just thinking Fargo is all …

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