What’s the Worst Thing You Can Do to Your Characters?

by Jason Black

Think about your work in progress, and ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing I could do to my protagonists?”  Kill all his friends?  Push him off a cliff?  Make him step on a land mine?  Burn his house down?  Let him get dumped, loudly, in public?  Or maybe just shoot him in the groin?

Now think about what’s the best thing you could do to him, and consider the following.  For your book to be successful, you need readers to be rooting for your protagonist.  You need readers to be in his corner, cheering him on.  For readers to cheer your protagonist on, they need to see him suffering, struggling, and failing along the road to success.  For him to suffer, you have to do the worst things imaginable to him that fit within the parameters of your story.

So actually, the best thing we can do for our protagonists is to do our worst.  Funny how that works.  The kindest thing we can do is make them suffer; make their journey as hard as we can make it without sacrificing the reader’s suspension of disbelief.  The worst thing we can do for them is to be kind to them, by giving them every advantage in their quest, by confronting them with ineffectual adversaries and at every step doing our utmost to smooth the way forward.

Let me tell you about two unpublished books I’ve read recently. These are manuscripts clients sent to me for, among other things, advice on their character development and story structure.   These are both books that I hope become published, because at their core each one has something really unique to offer.

Book number one is a Clancy-esque political intrigue spy thriller. To be fair, the author did give his protagonist some problems, except for one thing: The problems are all in his home life. His difficulties and challenges do not relate to the main story goal of smuggling the you-know-what out of you-can-guess-where. As far as the potentially thrilling part of the thriller goes, the protagonist made a plan and it went off pretty much without a hitch.  I wasn’t thrilled.  I couldn’t really root for the hero because, honestly, he didn’t need me to.  He was doing just fine on his own.

I understand this protective urge.   We authors grow to love our characters. We have created them, thought obsessively about them, nurtured them in our minds. We have taken care of them, and as with anything one cares for, we come to love them. It is only human not to want to hurt them.

But it kills your novel dead.  The worst thing we can actually do to our characters is nurture and coddle them. Instead, we must let our characters get into trouble—real, serious trouble—so they can get themselves out. We have to let them get hurt so they can overcome. We cannot treat them like toddlers, putting gates across the stairs and padding the coffee-table corners. We can’t hover like mother hens, waiting to snatch them out of trouble the instant danger looms.  If we do, readers won’t root for them, and there goes any hope of a successful novel.

I’ve made this mistake myself, in earlier novels that remain unpublished.  If I ever want them to be published, I need to go back and make things worse.  Fixing the story structure by introducing horrible difficulties for my protagonists also makes the characters better.

So what about book number two? The protagonist in that one is a three year-old girl.  How can you resist coddling a three year-old girl?  Well, ask this author.  In the book’s opening scene, the girl is already in a desperate situation. The author has chronically malnourished the girl until she can’t even walk, and has given her nothing but a wooden box for a bed and filthy rags for padding.  Oh, and she has been abandoned by her parents somewhere in the middle of the woods in 1865.  Does a kindly woodsman come along ten minutes later to rescue her?  No.  Days of hunger and thirst pass, death slowly approaching, before she is saved.

That little girl has problems upon problems. Every one of them just breaks my heart. Every one of them would make any lesser person give up.  But she doesn’t.  She views her situation with all the naive optimism innate to any three year-old child. Her challenge, her obstacle in that opening scene, was simply to hold on.  To not give up.

So when she was finally rescued, you bet I was rooting for her.  I rooted like crazy for that helpless, indomitable little girl, praying she could hold on until help arrived.  I rooted for her because it’s all I could do.  The very depth of her troubles made me root for her as much as I have for any character I’ve encountered in a New York Times bestselling book.

As writers, isn’t that what we all want? Don’t we want our readers rooting for our protagonists? Don’t we want them cheering when our heroes and heroines emerge victorious?

Of course we do. But that won’t happen unless we make it hard. If we don’t make the obstacles seemingly insurmountable, the problems seemingly unsolvable, then we make our characters’ jobs too easy and their victories meaningless. We make the characters themselves boring and lifeless.

When it comes to your novel’s protagonists, you nurture them best by doing your worst.

Jason Black is a book doctor who actively blogs about character development. He will be presenting a session on book doctoring at the 2010 PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason or read his blog, visit his website at www.PlotToPunctuation.com.

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