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Deny, Deny, Deny

December 26, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified December 26, 2011

We all know what children are like when they’re denied a treat or something they’ve been looking forward to—they fuss and fume and then they stomp off angry or disappointed or both.

And adults who are denied either plot ways to get what they want by another method or they’re plotting revenge against the individual responsible for the denial.

You can manipulate your characters—even the sweetest, most agreeable ones—into heinous behavior by denying them what they most want.

And not just denying them, but promising or hinting that they’ll get it if they first do something, say something, be something. And when they give all to do or say or be that something and you still deny them what they want, well then you can certainly see what kind of person those characters are by their reactions.

Use denial to increase conflict between characters and between one character and his world.

Use denial to goad characters into rash acts, into acting without thought to consequence or to the considerations of others.

Pour on the denials so that when the character thinks he can achieve a second desire in place of the first, he is thwarted there too. And deny him again when he thinks trying harder should bring success.

Denial makes us dig in and push to get what we want, what’s been promised, what is our due.

Denial also makes us angry. Makes us irrational. Makes us rash.

Denial is marvelous for stories. Use it to stir up characters, to make a character unlike his everyday self, the person he is when his desires aren’t threatened. Use denial to show what a character is made of, what he values, the lengths he’ll go to satisfy himself at the expense of the desires of others. At the expense of his reputation. Perhaps at the expense of his very self.


 Can you see how denial can work against a character but work for the story?

Characters who are denied either retrench and try harder or they look for ways around whatever blocks them from the object of their desire. They could also seemingly give up in the hopes of tricking other characters, but if they truly give up, there’s not much more you can do with that denial. If characters are thwarted and do give up, the conflict is eased and the tension diffused. Instead of increasing conflict, you’ll have erased it.

But characters who either keep pushing—as if strength or character alone might propel them past the denial point—or who look for ways around the denial keep readers interested. They keep the conflict high and they add trouble to problem to predicament.

Repeated denials allow characters to develop character—and perseverance and drive and boldness.

Denial matures characters. It can also lead them down paths, both for good and evil, that they’d never imagine traveling had they not been denied.

Variety of Denials
To introduce variety, vary the type of denial or change the method of denial. If Johnny Orlando at first can’t travel to Europe because his family can’t afford it, make the second denial of the trip come when he’s got money and opportunity but a pregnant wife on bed-rest and two toddlers running around his home.

Or maybe Marsden only wants to be left alone to paint in his cottage by the sea. Deny him that solitude by giving him a neighbor—in the only other house for 10 miles—who can’t stand being alone, who suffers from insomnia, and who thinks the artist needs pampering with food and wine those longs nights he’s up painting. Deny Marsden any peace by having him knock the neighbor down the stairs—accidentally of course—breaking her leg on one side and spraining her wrist on the other. Since she has no one to care for her, Marsden, feeling guilty, must of course offer his own home for rehab.

Vary the intensity of the denial, the character that the denial comes through, the reason for the denial, and the effect of the denial on the character. That is, don’t repeat yourself.

Make the denials logical for the story; think them through ahead of time.

Make characters face denials of different types and for different situations or different desires at the same time.

Build up the effect of denials so that by the time the character is ready to blow, all it takes is the simplest of denials to get him steaming.

Reveal a character’s personality by the way he handles denial. Not every character is upset by every denial, especially at the story’s beginning. Yet, if he’s quick to be agitated by someone telling him he can’t have what he wants, let him be consistent. And give him an antagonist, or even a friend, who is quick to tick him off just to watch him get angry or get creative with his responses.

It’s true that some people agitate others just to see their reactions. You can write this kind of character into your story to stir up your protagonist.

Since even the most accomplished man or woman doesn’t always get what he or she wants, build denial into your stories. Give characters a reason to push back or to go outside the law or outside the accepted manner of obtaining something they want or feel is their due.

Tell them no and then watch them pitch a fit or get even. Watch them achieve their goals by pushing against barriers all the way to breakthrough and success.

Or watch them push through those barriers to find spectacular failure.

Make them determined. Make them selfish, in at least one area of their lives. Make them stubborn. Make them do what they swore they’d never do.

Make them hurt others to get what they want. Make them regret that they hurt those they love. Make them fear they’ll do the same thing again.

Make them proud of their stubbornness. Make them ashamed. Make them sorrowful.

Let them accept the blame for their actions and the catastrophic results of those actions.

Let them cast blame on others.

Give them insight and character growth based on what happened when they pushed past denial.

Allow them to pretend that repeated denials and their response to denial never affected them.

Let them learn something.

Let them pretend to learn nothing.


Use repeated denials to drive your character where he needs to go, to levels of higher emotion and deeper personal needs.

Use denials to set the character on his story course and set the reader on edge.

Deny your character what he wants and what he needs. And then watch him go after those wants and needs with determination and ingenuity and passion.

Deny your characters what they want, but give your readers everything.

Write good story today.

Write reaction-provoking denials.



Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

3 Responses to “Deny, Deny, Deny”

  1. Pat Bertram says:

    Such a great way of looking at character/plot. Denying gives your plot strength, while at the same time, showing the strength of the character. David Gerrold, in Worlds of Wonder, called this process “hurt the hero,” but I prefer “deny the hero” since it’s more in keeping with my writing style. My characters aren’t much into violence.

  2. Since it’s not always physical pain, I’d more often say deny too, Pat. But I do sometimes recommend hurting the hero. Sometimes pain—physical, emotional, or spiritual—is the goad necessary for our characters.

    I don’t advise that same option for breathing, 3-dimensional people, of course.