Writer as a sadist: torture your characters!

I wrote my first novel ninja of 512in just three days. While that figure makes me sound pretty masochistic, I’m here today to talk about the flip side of masochism and why all writers need to be sadistic when it comes to their characters.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading great books, it’s that even the most beloved characters must suffer. They have to be thrown into what John Cusack’s character in Do not say anything he describes as “daring to be a big situation”, because then we get to see what they’re really made of, and whether they’re heroes, villains, or just yellow-bellied cowards. Some of them might curl up into a ball and suck their thumbs at the first sign of trouble, while others will draw their swords, strap on their shields, and throw themselves into the fray for all they’re worth.

Obviously, this last type of characters are the most interesting, because even if they end up giving them their ass on a silver platter, the important thing is that they tried. They took action and did something to deal with the current situation. Even if they are only metaphorically fighting demons, rather than having their throats slit with an imaginatively carved katana, readers want to see characters facing unpleasant situations in an attempt to overcome, rather than accepting their fate in silence. After all, we want to root for the little guy, beat the enemy, be there to see them come out on top, right?

Okay, but here’s the problem: this means that we writers have to be the bad guys who throw all those horrible problems at our favorite characters. We are the spiteful gods who kick them when they’re down, who keep throwing them back into the depths to sink or swim, or the idiots who inflict insurmountable hardships like the ever-falling rock of Sisyphus and the perpetually devoured liver of Prometheus. .

In short: we have to be sadists.

This is something that I find difficult. When I like my characters, I want them to win. I want things to be nice for them and I want their lives to be nice. It’s because I identify with these made-up people and I don’t want them to suffer. They are my friends, after all, and who wants their friends to suffer? Idiots, that’s who.

But guess that? Reading a nice little story about people who are kind and never have to deal with any pain is boring! To make characters truly adorable, you need to start hurting them, and fast. The sooner you get to the parts where bones are breaking and hearts ache, the better, because it means action is taking place and therefore growth is possible.

If you don’t hit your characters, they won’t learn anything about themselves. And if you don’t make them learn anything, then who cares whether or not they live happily ever after? They are cardboard characters, little puppets scattered around the stage, not real human beings.

As Nietzsche said, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. So, in case you’re trying to deal some real damage to get your characters moving, here are some of my favorite ways to torture my characters until they spill their guts, grow some spines, or just collapse:

  • Go for the kneecaps

  • kill someone they love

  • drive them crazy

  • delete their jobs

  • frustrate their friendships

  • Humiliate them professionally or personally.

  • Force them out on terrible dates

  • Ask them to go on good dates, but then deny them sex or love.

  • endorse them a madman

  • Seat them next to the most boring asshole at the party.

  • Cross your wires for some mixed messages and hilarious misunderstandings

  • frustrate their dreams

  • bankrupt them

  • Hit them with lightning or other natural disasters.

  • go for the jugular

  • send them to the hospital

  • Give them inoperable cancer or other deadly diseases.

  • Put them in Mission: Impossible

  • Dry up your water supply

  • Take away their technology or ruin their devices

  • Create a futile chase

  • Insert a red herring

  • despise his love

  • poison them slowly

  • Make them believe that they are seeing ghosts or hearing voices.

  • add them with demons

  • That their relatives mistreat them psychologically or physically.

  • tear off the roof

  • They were jailed for crimes they never committed

  • Get them chased by dangerous criminals.

  • Sponsor a round of disapproving looks

  • He encourages his loved ones to express their dissatisfaction with the chosen lifestyle.

  • Marry them to spouses who do not understand them.

  • suffocate them

  • attack their egos

  • plague them with wounds

  • Load them with inconvenient truths

  • Forcing them on a physical or spiritual journey that they never wanted to undertake

  • Create the Apocalypse

  • Unleash the hounds (or zombies)

  • let their coffee pots explode

  • Allowing animals to inexplicably attack them.

  • insult them

  • institutionalize them

  • Make them unpleasant, or unemployable, or both!

  • Make them a burden on your friends and family.

  • Making them late for work

  • Reject them over and over again

  • And they always, ALWAYS pile more trouble on their heads the closer they get to victory.

If you are the god of your universe of writing, be the god of the Old Testament who is spiteful, vengeful, and completely unpredictable. When in doubt, send out a plague of locusts. Or worse: snakes. (Hey, even tough guy Indiana Jones hated snakes.)

You must be the gleeful sadist, always twisting your characters in the wind, dangling them over a cliff, strangling them to death. Give them hell and see how they react. Don’t be afraid to take it to another level. You never know what kind of heroes you’ll develop until you start filling them with trouble.

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