Busting Writing Rules: Make the Character Suffer

One of the interesting aspects of busting all these rules is that they force me to really think about them. This one came into the book because of a trend I’ve been seeing where writers are pushing the envelope and going really dark to make the character suffer. I just stopped reading a series because of that. The writing was really good and engaging, but the escalation of suffering became exhausting.

So let’s head off to bust the rule.

What it Actually Means

Like a lot of advice, this started life in a much simpler version: Don’t make things easy for your character.

  • The mystery should not be too easy to solve.
  • There should be bumps and misdirections along the way in a relationship
  • The character’s own shortcomings should get the way of their success

Busting the Rule

The problem is two different issues:

  1. It’s a trend in today’s society to have darker stories that treat characters as victims, not as heroes/heroines.

    The media portrays people as victims of their circumstances. If someone is broke, it’s because society has done something to him, not because he made poor financial decisions.
    This ends up translating into fiction as lots of bad things happen to the character. It’s not the character’s fault, even though he is guilty of either inaction or bad decisions. So the character bounces along in the story, letting the story have control.

  2. Our society has a “more is better” attitude.

    It’s not hard to see this one everywhere. Just watch commercials for fast food restaurants, or commercials advertising exercise machines. The sandwiches get bigger and bigger and have more and more added to them. The exercise machines are about pushing, pushing, pushing so you get the body you want. (Somehow, no one connects the problem with these two, but that’s another story).

    But more is not necessarily better.

    Readers come to the story because they want escapism and an entertaining read. It’s hard to enjoy the story when the suffering turns ugly.

    One story I read was a detective series, and the suffering started out over the top and got worse. I did not understand why the character would repeatedly put herself through things that were horrifying. “More” made the character into a victim who struggled through life, not a heroine who survived, victorious.

What you can do

  1. “Suffering” does not have to be a negative emotion.

    Your character can have a huge win and the success brings unexpected emotions and complications. When I got my first personal rejection from a pro-rate magazine, it blew me out of the water. I’d improved my writing enough to get to the next step on the ladder! And my writing stalled out for about six months.

    There are plenty of examples of this in real life. You get an interview at your dream job and your nerves get out of hand. You think a relationship is going great and suddenly you do something really dumb to screw it up.

  2. It’s about balance and pacing.

    This is a more advanced writing skill. Pacing is knowing how much to give to the reader and when. Balance is figuring out not only how much to put it in, but also what to leave out.

    In James Rollins’ thriller series, one of the characters has a family crisis in the middle of all the action. His father starts out with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and eventually dies. Most writers would have done all that in one book. But these are fast-moving thrillers and that would have definitely slowed down and even distracted from the book.

    So what we get is a skillful blend into multiple books of this secondary plot happening. There are scenes at the beginning and the end of the story with the family, dealing with the latest complication. Then throughout the story, the character is struggling with his family life while he’s racing against time to save the world. He might be feeling guilty for not being back home and not helping more.

  3. The character must have agency.

    Chuck Wendig has a great definition of agency.

    One of the biggest issues with making the character suffer is that she reacts to the suffering but doesn’t make any effort to change her fate. She doesn’t have any agency.

Readers want characters to be larger than life. We want them to be heroes of their own stories.

If you want to read up more on this topic, head over to Justin Ferguson’s post.

5 thoughts on “Busting Writing Rules: Make the Character Suffer

  1. wscottling August 27, 2019 / 11:42 am

    I totally agree. I don’t know if you’re familiar with anime, but my kids used to watch it back in the day and I call this the “tournament effect” or the “Dragonball Z effect”. Because no matter how big and bad the baddie is, there is always going to be someone or something bigger and badder for our hero to overcome in the next story. It starts out “bad” then becomes horrible, then works its way up to ludicrous and unbelievable. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for a good story, but there’s got to be a stopping point. I’ve also given up on some series because they just didn’t know when to stop.

    Good article.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Linda Maye Adams August 27, 2019 / 6:27 pm

      There’s a series writer I used to read who did the same thing. Each book, the villain had to be badder, more powerful, until the character faced down a god and won. Just no place to go after that …


      • wscottling August 27, 2019 / 6:57 pm

        And that’s the thing, isn’t it? You kinda know that the hero is always going to win in the end in these kinds of stories. So there’s no real conflict. I read a similar (or it might have been the same) series, but stopped before she got to the god-like opponent because although she was working her way up to it, I knew she would win in the end.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pagadan August 27, 2019 / 12:35 pm

    Sometimes the heroine–and it’s usually the heroine–is just too dumb. No wonder bad things happen to her. Leaving her cell phone where she can’t reach it is common, but that’s not what I mean.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Linda Maye Adams August 27, 2019 / 6:29 pm

      There’s too many of those, too. I still remember a book where the heroine was really too stupid to live. She got paired up with a man and they were being chased by bad guys. He took her into the women’s room because he figured the bad guys wouldn’t look there. She screeched and screamed at him about being in the women’s room–knowing the bad guys were chasing her. Just head shaking.

      Liked by 1 person

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