Cursed, Dumb, or Unlucky? Making Trouble for Your Characters

“Torture your characters” is advice I’ve seen so often I think I should add it to my ever-increasing list of Advice to Question. Maybe I’m mellowing in my old age, but this one does have some merit.

For one thing, if the story’s goal is achieved or the problem solved too quickly, the novel or story ends up being too short and possibly boring. Boring the reader is a cardinal sin of writing. So it’s pretty much a given that the writer must create an obstacle course their characters must negotiate to achieve whatever it is they want or need.

Two problems I’ve experienced with doing this:

  • In real life, I make efforts to avoid problems when I’m planning a DIY project, a road trip, or cooking a dish I haven’t tried before. So it goes against the grain to create problems for my main characters, with whom I tend to identify because I often write in first person.
  • I don’t like making my characters look dumb. In She Who Comes Forth, for example, France Leighton does things that may be described as unwise. One reviewer expressed concern about this; another just called her stupid. On the other hand, she is not a “Mary Sue.”

Like any other plot device, the obstacles, difficulties, or perils we create for our characters have to serve the plot. The bumps along the road must be consistent with the plot and advance it, rather than be obviously stuck in to follow the “torture your characters” rule. A deus ex machina is a deus ex machina, even if the god intervenes to mess things up rather than fix them.

If a story involves life-threatening situations, escape and flight, or the schemes of an evil antagonist, perilous situations are essential parts of the plot. But what if your story is about ordinary life? Well, there’s always the difficult boss, the unexpected guest, the leaky roof, or the machinations of bureaucrats.

In addition to fitting the plot, the obstacles have to be appropriate for the character and situation. A flat tire is a mere annoyance if time isn’t of the essence. Climbing a high ladder and crawling onto a steep roof packs more punch if the character who has to do it is terrified of heights. The best obstacles are the ones with no good or safe choice. They may include all kinds of hard choices, not only physical dangers.

Putting characters in trouble can benefit the plot in ways other than creating tension. Negotiating with the boss, accommodating (or ejecting) the unexpected guests, or figuring out how to deal with bureaucracy would be opportunities to

  • show characters’ flaws and fears
  • show how they cope with adversity
  • show how they change or grow over the course of the story by developing skills or changing attitudes.

Does anyone else have a problem with making their characters struggle? Does anyone love doing it? Share your torture tips!

Image from Pexels

42 comments

    1. That’s true, Neil. Books and films where everything is perfect and nothing requires a struggle are pretty boring. Being in a comfortable state and vicariously experiencing the struggles of fictitious characters is perfect.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Torturing, yes. I can deal with that (up to a point) but killing them off? I haven’t managed that so far, although I almost did; but it became too traumatic. The character had to be saved in the end.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I used to say, with a wicked cackle, I love making my characters suffer! Of course, I like making them solve their problems, too. Bu also, when their live are going well, such as in Parts 5-6 of The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, it’s hard to prevent things from getting boring.
    I actually used a real deus ex machina at the end of v.6 of the Ki’shto’ba series. How else were Ki’shto’ba and Di’fa’kro’mi going to get home? Of course, those books are retellings of Greek myths, so a classical convention seemed appropriate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that really is a deus ex machina, and it fits the story well. And when things are going well for a character, it’s the time to create some “what if” situations for them to worry about, which is the case in Parts 5 and 6, as I recall. And then there’s Part 7, and Part 8 someday too, I hope.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Part 8 is still being revised (I’ve cut about 7500 words) and I’m working on the cover. There is a lot of conlang in Part 8, with accompanying footnotes, which will make it hard to format, but I’m getting there! If you were on FaceBook, you could follow my progress.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I approach the issue as challenges. Realistic challenges, at a realistic pace, that can be met by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. And because I’m not a risk taker, my first person narrator is usually dragged into these challenging situations by less risk adverse friends. Still, I go pretty easy on my characters, good guys and bad guys alike. Life is real. My fiction is an escape from real life, so I want it to be a better place for everyone — readers and characters alike.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Creating challenges for characters is actually a better term than torturing them. It’s a matter of degree, and the situations have to be realistic for the fictional world you create. I actually find problems that have to be figured out more interesting than threats to life and limb–sometimes, anyway.

      Like

  4. In response to your questions, I have a different way of describing this. Some people complain that my stories are depressing. Others complain that somebody always dies. Neither of these generalizations are completely accurate, but they do carry some justification with them. Why? Because you can’t get to happy without some drama along the way. Or, another way I put it is, where is the drama in happy. I’m not sure how fiction would work if the characters are born happy, live happy, and die happy. You know what I mean? Storytelling is about the struggle, about the reality of life. At least to me it is.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s the difference between travelling along a perfectly flat road with bare fields on either side and one that climbs hills, twists among mountains, crosses rivers, etc. Even if you don’t get a flat tire or a crash, the route with topography is more interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Making characters suffer (if they are likable in the first place) helps build empathy. One of the keys is to create problems that readers can identify with, even if they haven’t experienced those problems personally.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. We’ve been watching Bond movies and one of the truisms of Bond is he looks for trouble, but we always know he’ll escape it. That sense of security, of knowing he’ll survive, is a comfort. But in any other story, it would be a cop-out.

    One of the stories I read relatively recently The Overstory, did something I took instant issue with — the author killed off the main, most dynamic character 1/2 way through. What? Why? After that I lost interest and only skimmed the rest of the story. And the bits I read were lackluster. And it won awards, too? Lame-O! So, trouble? Sure. But trouble to the loss of the only MC worth a damn? Bogus!

    I agree, though. Intentionally causing grief to some character you’ve grown fond of is bloody difficult.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. With Bond and similar types it’s not whether he’ll survive but how.
      Killing the character that’s the main driver of the story seems like a big risk for an author. Obviously it didn’t work for you as a reader. Was it literary fiction? Even so…
      Creating problems for likable characters is an essential, but there are many ways of doing it. I still find it hard though.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. “The best obstacles are the ones with no good or safe choice.” I so agree with this line, Audrey. Impossible choices build great tension. Great post about making trouble for your characters and the variety of ways to accomplish that.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. -grin- I cannot tell a lie…I loved tortured characters, and I love moral dilemmas in which there is no right answer, no correct choice. But I make them choose anyway. I know. I’m mean. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I totally have that problem, too! Years of anxiety taught me to diffuse problems before they became major energy-sucks. But I do love it when characters make really smart, Oh-I’d-Do-That choices that end up either totally not working or making the situation worse (the opposite of the Idiot Plot). The movie The Europa Report, about a mission to one of the moons of Jupiter, did a great job (imho) of having smart characters doing the best they can, making incredibly rational choices—but the situation is so much more powerful than they are, like you say: in reality, there IS no right choice. Lovecraft’s work can be like that, too, at times: the sane choice we’d all make just backfires horribly and/or doesn’t work at all (thus, usually, driving a previously rational character to madness).

    My spec fic roots are showing here, but I think you’re right in brainstorming all the ways the “right” choice could go very wrong instead. And I’ve started reminding myself that while I would avoid conflict in real life, in fiction I get to experience conflict from a safe distance! Instead of trying to “put your character in a tree and throw rocks at them,” I prefer at the beginning of a scene to think hard about “what would be fun”? Because “fun” often translates into exciting, and that little mental workaround helps me to turn up the volume on my characters and make things worse.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In Lovecraft’s stories, the main character is often a rational type (scientist, academic, etc.) who is exposed to cosmic horror. Definitely an uncomfortable and sometimes impossible situation. (Always nice to meet a fellow HPL fan!)
      And yes, the whole point of fiction is to create vicarious experiences for readers, including ones they would avoid in real life. We authors therefore have to create characters readers can relate to or identify with, and then subject them to situations ranging from uncomfortable to desperate.
      There are many types of “fun” out there. Thanks for your thoughts on this, maggiedot!

      Liked by 1 person

What do you think? Opinions welcome!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.