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:
- 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.
- 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
- “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.
- 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.
- 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.