How Mean Are You To Your Characters? – Guest Post by Jaq D Hawkins…

It’s a well known fact that writers are some of the most sadistic people on the planet. What we do to make our characters’ lives difficult can far exceed what most people go through in real life, yet the worst difficulties make for the best stories.

The protagonist in a Mystery story discovers too much and finds her life is suddenly in danger. The star-crossed lovers in a Romance story are kept apart by any number of invading circumstances or misunderstandings. The characters in a Fantasy story witness their loved ones, perhaps even their whole village slaughtered and are driven into a quest, whether it’s for revenge or to save a survivor dear to their heart, perhaps even the world. That is if they aren’t trying to cross spiky crystal mountains without getting eaten by dragons.

The question is, how much misery must we inflict on a character to keep the story interesting?

That, of course, varies. Some readers don’t want things to get so awful that they can’t see a way out, while others enjoy watching characters work their way through a seemingly impossible situation, only to get knocked back yet again.

Genre expectations play a part in this. Romance readers generally expect a happy ending while in Fantasy or Horror, ‘everybody dies’ is a serious option. I actually got pushed past my comfort zone in a recent Fantasy read where the main character survived all sorts of nastiness and looked as if she might be alright in the end, then was slapped with a new difficulty in the last chapter that was inordinately severe. This, of course, means you have to buy the next book to find out what happens.

Will I continue the series to see what else the merciless author can find to do to this character? Time will tell. Luckily my tbr is massive and I can leave that one for a while and catch up on some of the other tormenting plots that await my attention while I mull over a decision.

There have been times when I wonder if I’m mean enough to my main characters to write as well as some of the authors whose books I enjoy the most. It’s not as if I’ve never given them an impossible choice or thrown them (literally) into a situation where they should have died in agony, but the sustained ordeals of some of the stories I read make me question if I’m cruel enough to write Fantasy.

I mostly write Dark Fantasy, crossing the line occasionally into Horror stories. These are two of my favourite genres to read. I won’t go into the psychology of why these stories appeal to so many people as I’m not qualified for that, but it seems that a lot of readers find real life easier to cope with after reading about people with much worse problems to resolve.

The thing is, nobody wants to read about someone having an ordinary life. Get up, go to work, have a crisis over breaking a nail… this sort of narrative doesn’t get the emotional juices going. One of the reasons I don’t read much YA is too many plots about teenage protagonists having trouble with parents or college (like everybody can afford to go to college). These situations are dull and hard to identify with after a reader is well past the age of parental authority or educational choices. To liven things up, the protagonist’s youthful issues have to encounter something disruptive, like a vampire attack or finding a body, though Romance readers might be happy with a new hot guy showing up on the scene.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to one of your characters? What struggles have characters faced in some of your favourite reads? Let’s chat in the comments.

Jaq D Hawkins

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13 thoughts on “How Mean Are You To Your Characters? – Guest Post by Jaq D Hawkins…

  1. I agree with everything you say, Jaq. An uneveolife does not make a good read.
    In my latest WIP, my protagonist’s wife is revealed as a traitor and vanishes with their three year old daughter.
    Although the antagonist has been killed by the group (or has he?) The protagonist is devastated by the loss of his daughter.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think the reader needs a break sometime. I recently finished a first in series where the protagonist went through one hardship after another, but it was at the end that she was set up for yet another severe difficulty that stopped me continuing the series.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, that would put me off too. The first volume of Stephen Donaldson’s ‘Mordant’s Need’ followed that pattern, and when I finished it I was so p***ed off I threw it across the room. Needless to say, I didn’t bother with the second book.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting that short stories would be different. I’m working on one now for an anthology and will have to make a more conscious effort to note what I do to the character and how it compares to my novels.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think there’s a difference between creating a series of challenges for a character and torturing them because that’s what writers are told to do. The hazards and conundrums have to grow organically as part of the overall plot. Otherwise they’re just side trips without purpose.
    That said, I’ve sometimes thought I don’t make things hard enough for my protagonists.

    Liked by 2 people


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