Why We Should Torture Our Characters

7:00 AM


Now, I don't mean torture in the usual sense, although that CAN be something you hit them with. The torture I'm referring to today is anything you do to make life rough for your characters - which is something you should do, whether you write contemporary romance or horror. Happiness/intensity levels depend on the story and the genre, of course, but very few people want to read an entire novel full of nothing but happiness and sunshine, right?

One of my favorite books ever, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, has a particular section that I think sums this up perfectly:


Happiness is never grand. 

Now, that's not to say that happiness is bad, or can't ever be meaningful. There's lots of meaningfulness and good in joy and happiness. But happy is generally a resting place, an end result, a happy ending if you will. There's a reason why stories aren't all happiness and sunshine the whole way through, and that's because there's no struggle in it. 

This is important in writing, of course, and I don't think I need to explain it, right? A story should contain lots of struggles. The characters should struggle with others, with themselves, with the world around them, with the obstacles in their way. Just like real life, they learn through pain, and grow from coming out of it. There's a lot of power in stories of redemption or healing or coming-of-age, and there's not a single one of those powerful stories to my knowledge that's full of laughter and kittens and rainbows. It comes out of suffering; out of unhappiness. And those are the grand stories.

As always, there's also a Doctor Who quote that sums this up:


And who are our favorite characters? The ones we worry about and feel for. The ones we sympathize with. The ones that go through hard things and you really, really, really want them to come out okay, and then they do and it's scarring maybe but they come out the better for it, all the more beautiful because of all that pain. We feel for characters who rise to the occasion despite hard stuff or tragic backstories. Would you enjoy the characters you do as much if they never went through anything hard? 

I didn't mean for this post to be cheesy, I swear. We're almost done.

So that, in my opinion, is why we need to torture our characters and give them an absolutely rough time of it. Not beat them to pieces for no reason, but make it pretty dang tough for them to get what they want or get out of trouble. It doesn't have to be some big life threatening event, either. Just give them a lot of trouble somehow or other. They'll probably come out all the more interesting for it. 

Well, that's my say in it. What about you? Do you disagree? How do you feel about tragic endings? Do you like your stories dark, or on the happier side? Comment away. 


Note: My short story project, A Year of Short Stories, starts this Saturday. I'm shamelessly self-promoting encouraging you to go take a look and maybe, maybe follow, so you can get a taste of my writing! 

14 comments

  1. It definitely is very important to make the characters in our stories struggle because in real life, no one is always happy. We all have to struggle through things and learn and grow. Personally, I prefer stories that have bittersweet endings after all the struggles, but that lean more towards the happy end.

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    1. Exactly! It's just more realistic that way. And bittersweet endings are the best, in my opinion.

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  2. Happy endings are nice, but I don't prefer terribly tragic. Somewhere in between suits me best. But they /have/ to work for the end goal. I don't appreciate lazy characters.
    I followed your short stories blog! I'm super excited to read your writing!

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    1. I get what you're saying...I'm a fan of tragic endings best if they're done well, but generally I'll settle for a good in-between - too happy and it's all sugary and unrealistic, but too sad and it's doom and gloom and often pointless. And lazy characters...yeah, those are never good. :/
      Yay! I do hope you'll like it.

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  3. This is an awesome reminder, and I like it a lot! I have to say that I do like happy endings, but not exactly for the reason that it's happy. Like you said, happiness is a resting place, and I feel like at at the end of a series (not in the middle, of course; that would be a little different) I like there to be a happy place to stop. In real life, it would continue, but by reaching that place of stopping it signifies a real END and I can STOP and it's like exhaling. Just somewhere good to be at the end.

    If that makes sense.

    Anyway, YAS in all the ways, and a great reminder as to why we should never let our characters get too comfortable. :)

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    1. Yeah, that makes sense...I like the metaphor of exhaling because that's certainly how it feels! Good happy endings let all that tension relax...unless it's going to have a sequel, of course. ;-) So that makes sense xD

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  4. I love tragic ends. I feel sorry for the characters, but it cheers me up about my life.
    The best ends are happy and sad. I guess the thing about happy endings is that you never see what happens afterward to mean that the characters have to fight for their happiness. And thats where the story is.

    If that makes sense?

    I'm excited for your year of short stories!

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    1. Mhmm. Characters should always have to fight for their happiness - so I'm not opposed to totally happy endings unless they're totally cheesy. There should be at least SOME hint of bittersweet there.
      Thanks for reading!

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  5. I've noticed that, without the torturing of characters, no story actually happens. Even books aimed at very young children (in which literal torture of characters is generally frowned upon), there needs to be some sort of conflict, and once the conflict has ended the story ends quickly after. I can't think of a single story I've read during which no conflict whatsoever occurs.

    I loved the Brave New World quote, by the way!

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    1. Oh, absolutely. You can't have a story without SOME kind of unpleasant conflict. xD Thanks!

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  6. Well, thanks for writing this! I was just in the midst of worrying I put too much of the dark stuff in my story. But it's doing all of the things you said it would for my characters, and I think it's necessary. I also loved the doctor who quote, and the deepness of the fact that yes, trouble is happiness a lot of the time. That's the case in real life, too! This is so cool!

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    1. I wouldn't worry about the dark stuff unless there's no reason for it xD Thanks for reading! I'm glad you liked it.

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    2. You're welcome! I'm happy to read it!

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  7. Great post and so true. I'll admit to perhaps excessively torturing my charries, but it really does make the journey that much more meaningful.
    That said, I do love a happy ending. If they come through all the crap and get to a good place, full of sunshine and rainbows at the end, then that's perfect to me.


    Alexa S. Winters
    thessalexa.blogspot.com

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