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Dare to Challenge Your Characters

January 25, 2014 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified January 26, 2014

Today we’re going to look at characters, at the way you treat your characters.

Specifically I want to challenge you to challenge them, especially any of your lead characters. All of your lead characters.

Dare to make them grow. Make them learn. Make them have to be bold when they’ve never been bold about even the simplest issues.

Write your main characters into situations that would destroy most of us and then watch them work their way out, emerging braver, wiser, more compassionate, more obstinate. Put them through the wringer and show them to be different on the other side.

I dare you to give you characters weaknesses and flaws and opposition so tough that the only way they can get through is to become someone new—or become the man or woman they’d always been but had never had call to reveal.

Make your lead characters do something so hurtful or hateful to another character, something so awful that there seems to be no way to redeem them, and then redeem them. Write them into trouble and then write them out. Make their friends and maybe even the readers hate them for a while and then show them as overcomers in a way that makes them shine, that puts them back in favor with their friends and the readers.

Make them fall from grace and then restore them to favor.

Or make them fall and let the opportunity for redemption fail. Put them in a bind and then, once the adventure is over, leave them there. Doing so can be tough—heartbreaking for the writer and the character—but it is a valid option.

I’m talking about making your characters real, as real as they can be. More real—more colorful, more exuberant, more skilled, more challenged—more everything than the woman next to you in the grocery store and the man next to you on the subway.

And once you have these beyond-real characters who hurt more than we do or who experience more in a week than we do in a lifetime, then push beyond the polite interactions that most real people have daily and involve your characters in situations that will make or break them. And make sure they break before they’re remade.

Don’t err on the side of caution with your characters and their failures. It’s okay to show their weaknesses. To prey on those weaknesses. To exacerbate every one of those weaknesses. It’s okay to make their lives painful.

When you give them a lot to overcome, the moment when they do overcome is sweeter than sweet. It’s satisfying and gratifying. It has meaning. It has depth and breadth and can radiate success and confidence into every other part of their lives. The redemption or success of a character can influence every other character in a book—make your characters’ redemptive moments strong enough to support the emotional impact you plan to get out of those moments. If what leads to a character’s success or salvation is meaningless, without cost, so is the moment of salvation.

If you need a character’s redemption to pay off, you have to make that character’s fall a painful one.

Those moments when a character overcomes can also satisfy the readers, fulfilling a need to see justice and mercy work together to create a memorable outcome.

Challenge your characters. Make them have to succeed. And watch what the power of an overcoming character can do to strengthen your stories.

__________________________

On the other hand, you could challenge your character beyond his limits, beyond his best efforts, and yet keep him ultimately unsuccessful. You could challenge him so much that even his skilled friends and mentors can’t help him overcome all the obstacles in his path.

You’d end up with a very different story if a major character was unsuccessful, yet if a character pushes beyond his own expectations, whether he’s successful or not, it’s likely that he has been changed in some way. Or it’s likely that he changes those around him. Or that he touches the reader.

You could write a tragedy, with no happily-ever-after for the character who pushes beyond his own strength, who gives all and still cannot beat every obstacle.

Sometimes the victim of a kidnapping is killed before the rescuers arrive. Sometimes the ticking bomb goes off. Sometimes a lover marries someone else.

But when the characters are engaged in the fight with all their strength and will and mind, when they give everything, they create involving fiction, no matter what the ending.

A character who gives all, who maybe gives his life, helps make great story.

So the challenge for writers is to push characters. Don’t hold back. Don’t oversympathize. Don’t feel so much for your characters that you don’t challenge them enough, that you don’t challenge them as much as they need to be challenged to get done what needs to be done.

Don’t let your empathy for real people get in the way of creating true suffering for your characters. They’re not real—it’s okay to make them suffer. No one will jail you for creating painful situations. Instead, they may reward you for showing how a man or woman deals with agonizing suffering.

Maybe it’s embarrassment you’re throwing at your character; some people would literally rather die than be caught in an embarrassing situation. Is that true of your characters? Then make them suffer embarrassment of the worst kind, an embarrassment they’ve feared all their lives.

A character’s pain and the way he deals with it may prove to be the backbone of your story, that one story element that makes your fiction stand up and stand out. Plan now to include pain and embarrassment for the major characters in your stories. Give your fiction an emotional frame to hang the rest of the story elements on.

Your characters may have to break rules, break a personal code, turn their backs on the law, on friends, on family. They may have to deny themselves what they truly want in order to do what someone else expects them to do.

They may have to put aside a mother’s advice, a father’s counsel, an adviser’s warning.

They may have to make themselves a curse to society, truly anathema. They may have to become monsters in order to overcome a greater monster.

Consider challenging your major characters. Look for ways to push them, to test them, to dare them to do more in a single day than they ever imagined being capable of.

Make them worthy of a story. Make them worthy of a place in your fictional world.

If a character is protagonist or antagonist, make him worthy of his foes and worthy of a reader’s time. Make their stories compelling enough for readers to spend several hours with them.

When you’re tempted to hold back, pile on the problems. Take away one more support. Add a challenge. Turn up the heat on an existing fire.

Create hurdles and barriers and obstacles. Make life tough. Challenge your characters.

*******

While this advice is applicable to all genres and characters, the obstacles you put in front of your characters and the types of challenges may quite well be different from genre to genre.

But do look for ways to challenge your leads, making them different at the end of a book from what they were at the beginning. Work within genre and what works for your characters’ backgrounds, but do push your characters.

Your stories will be better for it.

Your characters will be better for it.

***

 

Tags:     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

17 Responses to “Dare to Challenge Your Characters”

  1. Hi Beth,

    I always love your posts. They get my wheels turning. Is there a way to post a private comment?

  2. Rosi says:

    Thanks for a very informative post. This is great advice for all writers, and it’s something I need to work on.

  3. Ian Modjo says:

    Thanks, Beth,
    I realise I need to make my characters LIVE, become real. This will help me to do it….., and shouldn’t that be ‘wringer’ or is that just another example of the differences between Pommie and Yankee English?

    • Ian, I love reading characters who leap off the page because they’re so three-dimensional.

      That should definitely be wringer. Thanks for the heads-up. I usually edit an article a couple of hours after I post it, but haven’t looked back at this one. An example of why we all need editors.

  4. I really like this excerpt and would like to use it, with full accreditation to your talent in my blog. The thing’s you have suggested are right on in my book. I strive to have conflict that can be overcome in my novels. Please advise me if it is possible. I don’t want to step on any toes. My e-mail address is, jamesmcopelandnovelist@gmail.com
    Thanks,
    James M. Copeland

  5. The information you have in your blog is clear and easy understand. It answers many questions that a beginning writer has or will have. I am building a writer’s resource page with links to informative helpful blogs. I would like to create a link to your blog from my website. If that is acceptable to you please contact me.
    Thank you,
    Thomas

  6. Phyllis Lake says:

    I think I do need to work at this in my middle grade novel to not make it “sweet.”
    I also found your comments from 2012 on “inner dialogue” most helpful. Thank you

  7. eilonwy says:

    I really like this post.

    The turning point in writing my novel-in-progress (which still may or may not be good, but it’s better than it was) was when I started saying to myself: “Okay, if this punchy scene ending would leave the characters fumbling awkwardly for words, don’t end here — push on with the character development because it’ll be wanted later.”

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