The Two Sides to Torturing Your Characters

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been told this a fair amount. That I’m being too easy on my protagonists. That I’m not beating the weight of the world into them enough.

It’s good advice. It really is. People who aren’t writers might not realize how difficult it is, once you have a fully formed character who you want to follow through a whole novel, to then take that character and CRUSH THEM. It’s hard. It’s so hard we might tell ourselves, “No, you’ve suffered enough. I’ll ease up on you,” when really, they haven’t suffered nearly enough.

Why do they have to suffer? Oh, you know, the usual reasons. Because when a character isn’t challenged or put in danger the story has no tension. No drama. There’s no story at all, when everything goes great for the character all the time.

Assuming you’ve created a character we love and care about, making them suffer is part of the deal. We don’t want to see them in pain, but we want to see what they’ll do in response, how they’ll get themselves out.

But there’s another factor that, though I may have unconsciously known about it already, I didn’t really consider outright until recently.

I’ve been working on my novel for awhile. And for most of that while, there was something about it that just wasn’t quite working. Okay, multiple somethings. But there was one big thing that I needed in order to make the story compelling. My protagonist had to save another character. And obviously there needed to be obstacles in her way. But what should they be? Well, it’s a fantasy, so why not just throw in some riddles, some swords, some growling monsters, and voila! Right?

Well, not quite. There was still an element that was making it feel generic, and I couldn’t figure out how to pull myself out. That’s when I showed it to a friend, who asked me a simple question that changed everything:

What does your character fear?

It was one of those smack-on-the-head moments for me. What does she fear?

When I learned what my character feared, I knew how her story would go. Before, she was wandering aimlessly. Now, she had real obstacles.

Because here’s the thing. A challenge needs to be more than just a challenge. If I put a sword in my character’s hand and told her to go fight a dragon, well, that’d be difficult for her, but it wouldn’t be tied to the story, or who she was. It would just be a random difficult thing that she has to do.

But when I realize that what she fears most is her memories, and saving the day involves forcing her to confront those memories, well, then I’m getting warmer.

Think about Harry Potter. What does he fear? Losing the two most important people in his life, Ron and Hermione. Not having them when he needs them the most. What does he have to do in the final battle to get the Philosopher’s Stone? Fight without them. Not only does he have to fight without them, he has to leave them at the very last second, enter the last room seconds after he was with them. You feel his pain, his fear that he’ll never see them again. You’re not sure if he can do it alone, because he’s not sure if he can do it alone.

He’s not going alone because some random wizard decreed it, mind you; there needs to be a good reason besides “it’ll be good for you to face your fears.” But when you find your character’s fear, and when you find a compelling reason to put them in the face of that fear, then you’re making the reader care more than if you just gave them a sword and told them to fight a dragon.

Some of you might be saying, “Well, duh!” but maybe not. Maybe one of you is reading this and is thinking about this in a different way for the first time. I know I wish I’d been actively aware of this a lot sooner. I think I always knew it, on some level. I just couldn’t figure out how to translate it to my own writing.

So, what does your character fear? Are you putting up obstacles that force them to deal with it? Are there good reasons to have these obstacles that make sense within the context of your story?

It’s not enough to torture your characters. You need to tailor the torture so that when he enters that chamber alone, I know exactly why that’s so terrifying, so I feel scared right along with him.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Ellar Cooper
    Dec 14, 2013 @ 13:01:46

    You know…I do think about the torture aspect a fair amount because I struggle with it so much, but I tend to forget about where fear comes in. Hmm. I’m gonna have to ponder this. Thanks, Rachel.

    Reply

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