Character Assassination.

Recently I had a minor naval gazing dilemma stroke drama. I was reading other writers’ work and bemoaning what I saw as the vast echoing chasm of difference between how they tortured their characters and I torture mine. Because, let’s face it, we’re supposed to kick holy hell out of our characters… as well as the eponymous seven shades of crapola and a bucket of beans. And damn me if I didn’t feel like I might be being *gasp* a little soft.

I’m not a nice person. I have this twisted, horrendous, bottom-dragging imagination. I admit it, there are times I’ll write a scene and think to myself ‘girl, that just ain’t right’. But here I was suddenly caught up in the absolute certainty that I was playing like a glitter and pink drenched Pollyanna in a kitten factory when it came to my character’s lives.

It’s not a small issue, this, no indeed. There are things that just won’t be possible if you don’t brutalise that poor character of yours. You’ll never mine the salty, raddled depths of their id if you don’t force them to ride naked through a heaving cacophony of pure hell with ‘I dare you to prong me, bitch’ tattooed on their forehead. You’ll have no conflict, no tension, no emotional impact. In other words, you’ll have no mother-chuffing story, just a flat, lifeless hank of unlikely dross-prose.

You can imagine then the sheer force of the ‘oh shit’ tsunami savaging my introspectively focused brain. In layman’s term: I shat a brick. I dragged out everything I’ve ever written. Thankfully this is not much as I *lost* all that terrible shite I wrote in my teens and anything since that’s frankly embarrassed me to the point of running away to live under an assumed identity in the Arizona desert.

So, there I sit, all this collected work lined up on the screen before my shuddering, slightly watery eyes and I go through it with the proverbial toothcomb. Heart pounding, stomach doing a fairly good impression of that elephant you shoved off a tall building. And here is what I discovered. *clears throat* I am an absolute goddamned sadistic brutal heartless scheming conniving cold savage daughter of a bloodthirsty tyrant.

You can imagine my relief.

See, it’s not only important that our characters are accessible, that we make the reader feel something for them, be it empathy, disdain, loathing, adoration or various other gut-level responses of varying degrees of nicety or nastiness (I am not a fan of consistently sympathetic characters – I’ll blog that out further at some point as I’ve a fairly large spleen over it). Because we’ve gotta provoke that gut response, haven’t we, gotta hook ‘em, reel ‘em in and have them flapping about in our hands, helpless and gasping for oxygen. But we also have to make them cringe for those characters, whether they like them or not.

We have to make them do that thing people do when they watch those videos of people falling off skateboards at speed, or crashing cars, or the pranks/stunts that go disastrously wrong. That ‘Oooh!’ followed by the delighted lean toward the screen as if they just cannot wait to see if there’s blood, or even better, guts. Dammit we’re a bloodthirsty lot, a pack of low down primitives who, whilst we yearn to feel a connection with the characters in stories, also want to revel in their pain, roll in their misery and lean in close to peruse the carnage of their assassination.

You gotta bring that pain, bring it hard, horrendous and full on… make the reader cringe, wince, pucker up their mouths and go ‘Oooh’. Then, when you’ve done that to the point where they’re reading from between their fingers behind a cushion with years of psycho-therapy ahead of them to iron out the mind-trauma, make sure that somehow, some way, poor old Johnny or Jane character comes out the other end mostly intact, having learnt some serious lesson or other or gained some precious nugget of truth. Because the one thing people hate more than nothing happening is failure to climax… no one likes to be left dissatisfied, people have killed for a lack of the la petit mort after the big O kahuna.

So ride ‘em hard, make ’em squeal like the proverbial hog on a rope and leave ‘em soaking wet… and smiling through the tears.

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6 thoughts on “Character Assassination.

  1. Wait…you thought you were too SOFT on your characters. Sheesh…I’m glad that delusion got busted, because I hate to think what your might do if you were TRYING to be nasty.

    Torture the buggers and the readers get that little frisson of empathic pain to help them read on.

    1. Yeah, for some reason I got to thinking I was pulling my punches a bit… Hades alone knows why. Glad to say I’ve now been disabused of the notion. If you can’t torture your characters you may as well just give up… or write for In The Night Garden. *shudders*

  2. Wonderful post, and I agree to an extent. As with everything, I believe there needs to be a balance. It’s great and appropriate to brutalise ones characters. I’m a big fan of it myself, but if a story is just an endless torture, there can be a danger that some story is lost to the brutalisation. Not all character is exposed during pain or duress, it’s also exposed in every day reactions to normal things. An indifference to things that are ‘supposed’ to be important. Character IMHO can be expressed in a number of ways, and brutal torturing is just one of those.

    1. Ah, you see, I mean torture as in ‘whatever conflict you need to put your character through’. For romance writers it may be keeping those lovebirds apart through horrendous misunderstandings and misinterpretations. For the thriller writers it may be having their protag get a little too up close and personal with their antag and get a little roughed up or worse before they break through and find a way to make it right. In my usual, mildly overblown terms I was saying that, whatever you do, if there’s conflict, don’t hold back, don’t be squeamish, give it your all in whatever medium you write… make us feel every last drop of sweat or heartbreak or blood your protagonists feel before breaking us through to the denouement and making it all right, or as right as it’s going to be.

      And yes, character is expressed in a myriad ways but a story without conflict, well, that’s not a story at all.

    2. Yeah, the problem with hoary old writing advice like “Torture you characters” is it’s a metaphorical statement not a literal one. It’s like that old quote of Hemingway’s “Kill your little darlings”. He didn’t mean cut anything you really love from the manuscript because if you love it then it will be crap. What he meant was don’t keep stuff that isn’t working just because you love the way you wrote it. Be ruthless not stupid.

      And torture your characters is the same. The best way to show a reader a character’s inner workings is to take away everything that character relies on. What will they do? What line won’t they cross? Where are their limits?

      1. Precisely, that’s exactly it. And that is a definition of torture… stripping a person of everything they hold dear. It’s more cruel and more insidious than sticking pear-shaped items into orifices, or stretching out bones on a rack. Torture may be a hoary old term to use, but it precisely describes the act we writers must commit. But, unlike the Inquisitors, we have to have a little finesse… delicacy of hand. Because as Mr. Barnes quite rightly says, all torture and no relief (or promise of it) makes story a dull creation.

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