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Writer As Sadist: Torture Your Characters!

I wrote my first novel, Ninjas of the 512, in just three days. While that figure makes me sound like quite the masochist, today I’m here to talk about the flip side of masochism and why all writers must be sadists when it comes to their characters.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from reading great books, it’s that even the most beloved of characters must suffer. They have to be tossed into what John Cusack’s character in Say Anything describes as a “dare to be great 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 hurl themselves into the fray for all they’re worth.

Obviously, the latter types of characters are the more interesting ones, because even if they end up getting their asses handed to them on a silver platter, the important thing is that they tried. They took action, and they did something to deal with the situation at hand. Even if they’re only metaphorically battling demons, rather than actually slitting their throats with a fancifully carved katana, readers want to see characters that will grapple with unpleasant situations in an attempt to overcome, rather than quietly accepting their fate. After all, we want to root for the little guy, vanquish 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 that throw all those awful problems at our favorite characters. We’re the spiteful gods that kick ’em when they’re down, the ones that keep throwing them back into the deep end to sink or swim, or the jerks inflicting insurmountable hardships like Sisyphus’ ever-tumbling boulder and Prometheus’s perpetually eaten liver.

In short: we’ve got to be sadists.

This is something 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 pleasant. It’s because I identify with these made-up people, and I don’t want them to suffer. They’re my friends, after all, and who wants their friends to suffer? Jerks, that’s who.

But guess what? Reading a pleasant little story about people who are nice and never have to deal with any pain is boring! For characters to truly be lovable, you’ve got to start hurting them, and fast. The sooner you get to the parts where the bones are breaking and the hearts are aching, the better, because it means that action is taking place, and therefore growth is possible.

If you don’t beat your characters up, 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’re cardboard characters, little puppets strewn across your stage, not real human beings.

As Nietzsche said, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. So in case you’re trying to man up to inflict 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 plain break down:

  • Go for the kneecaps
  • Kill someone they love
  • Drive them crazy
  • Delete their jobs
  • Foil their friendships
  • Humiliate them professionally or personally
  • Force them out on terrible dates
  • Have them go on great dates, but then deny them sex or love
  • Foist a crazy person on them
  • Seat them next to the most boring asshole at the party
  • Cross their wires for some mixed-messages and hilarious misunderstandings
  • Thwart their dreams
  • Bankrupt them
  • Smite 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 on Mission: Impossible
  • Dry up their water supply
  • Take away their technology or screw up their gadgets
  • Create a wild goose chase
  • Insert a red herring
  • Spurn their love
  • Poison them slowly
  • Make them think they’re seeing ghosts or hearing voices
  • Addle them with demons
  • Have their family members psychologically or physically abuse them
  • Rip the roof off
  • Incarcerate them for crimes they never committed
  • Have them pursued by dangerous criminals
  • Sponsor a round of disapproving glares
  • Encourage their loved ones to express dissatisfaction with their chosen lifestyle
  • Marry them off to spouses that don’t understand them
  • Smother them
  • Attack their egos
  • Plague them with injuries
  • Saddle them with inconvenient truths
  • Force them on a physical or spiritual journey they never wanted to undertake
  • Create the Apocalypse
  • Unleash the hounds (or the zombies)
  • Have their coffee makers explode
  • Allow animals to inexplicably attack them
  • Injure them
  • Institutionalize them
  • Make them unlovable, or unemployable, or both!
  • Make them burdens to their friends and families
  • Make them late for work
  • Reject them again and again
  • And always, ALWAYS heap more trouble on their heads the closer they come to victory

If you are the god of your writing universe, be the Old Testament god that’s spiteful, vindictive and thoroughly unpredictable. If in doubt, send a plague of locusts. Or worse: snakes. (Hey, even tough-guy Indiana Jones hated snakes.)

You must be the mirthful sadist, always twisting your characters in the wind, dangling them over a precipice, throttling them half to death. Give them hell, and see how they react. Don’t be afraid to take it to another level. You never know what kinds of heroes you’ll develop until you start slathering them with troubles.