Why You Have to Be Mean to Your Characters—Even If That Character Is YOU

Posted October 9, 2014 by Amanda Shofner in Writing / 4 Comments

conflictAs a reader, I’ve [privately, in my head] railed at authors about how dare you put my favorite characters through all these hardships. I love my characters! I want them to be safe and happy!

But as a writer, you have to be mean. Prevent your character from getting what she wants. Throw her into impossible situations. Tease her with death. Even when you write non-fiction and that character is you. (Well, maybe don’t tease yourself with death unless you’ve actually done something death-defying.)

Without conflict, your book is boring

Just about every book you’ll read on writing mentions CONFLICT. And for good reason: it’s the one ingredient guaranteed to keep your book moving forward—and keep your readers reading.

Because here’s an important secret about readers: as much as we say we hate watching our favorite characters go through hell and back, we’re addicted to the conflict. I mean, that’s why we read. To experience. To feel. To escape our own life, if only for a few hours.

Conflict is more than fighting—it’s any state of being besides “hunky-dory”

Hunky-dory is fun to say, isn’t it?

If everything your story is going well, you’ll get one of two reactions:

1. Boredom
2. Anticipation for the conflict to begin

The second reaction isn’t necessarily bad, as long as you deliver it. Stephanie Perkins does this well in Isla and the Happily Ever After—the relationship takes off and then plummets. But without the plummet, readers wouldn’t have loved it as much as they did. And I wanted to rush through until I got to the point where the relationship blew up.

That’s where the book gets fascinating and difficult to put down. And that’s because, as Lisa Cron puts it, our brains are wired for story—we’re wired to look for, anticipate, and want the conflict.

Sometimes I call conflict drama because well, we know what drama is, even if we can’t give it a precise definition. Imagine a romance is going well. That’s not very interesting, is it? Now imagine one partner is lying to the other. Instant conflict, even if everything seems okay at the moment. It’s going to blow up eventually, and that’s how conflict is born.

A book isn’t a book without conflict

Okay, so fiction writers have an easier time with this—they’re in control of what happens (or doesn’t happen) in their story. But what if you’re telling your story? What happened happened and you don’t have control over it, right?

But this is what I tell my book coaching clients: your story isn’t meant to be told in a chronological, “this is what happened” way. Your job is to pick and choose which moments carry the most conflict and play those up. Stretch them out, give them more attention. You’re the teller of your own story.

How good are you at being mean to your characters?

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4 responses to “Why You Have to Be Mean to Your Characters—Even If That Character Is YOU

  1. I’ve created some conflict in my non-fiction as well as fiction.

    But, when you’re telling infantrymen things they may not want to hear (such as, “Have you ever thought about how little *good* you’ve actually done with a gun?”), it gets kinda complicated.

    I’ve also created conflict in writing about myself by writing about some of the less than pretty things I’ve done in the world…

    Would you say conflict in non-fiction has a place too? If so, how do you know if you’ve gone too far?

    • I’d make a distinction between conflict and controversy. Conflict, understanding that the situation isn’t going to go well or that the character isn’t going to get what he/she wants (i.e., it propels the story forward by creating a new obstacle to address). Controversy, tackling an issue that can potentially offend people or writing in a way that’s meant to be uncomfortably thought-provoking (i.e., it elicits strong reactions from the reader).

      I’ve set aside fiction books, for example, because I didn’t like how they portrayed dubious consent scenes. Anytime you tackle a subject that goes against people’s beliefs, you risk tipping conflict into controversy. Not that controversy is bad—sometimes you need to poke and prod to have a real conversation about an important issue.

      And some topics, no matter how delicately you approach them, are going to create controversy. So yes, conflict and controversy have a place in non-fiction—especially if that’s your goal. But knowing your goal and your topic’s potential for controversy is good too.

      It’s also important to remember that once published, people will read their own lives into your words, and you have no control over it. You can soften a tough subject, but people will invariably find offense in it, especially if they feel your words are an attack on them or what they’ve done. Even though it’s not meant that way—or written that way.

      For what it’s worth, I soften subjects by talking about me, my experiences, and thoughts. No matter how “threatening” my position is, as long as it remains mine, without pressure to conform, it’s easier to take.

    • This depends on the genre you write, as conflict—and what’s expected—differs. Study books: see what you like and don’t like in terms of conflict and what’s believable or not. Use that knowledge in your own book. Then get an outside opinion in the form of beta readers or a content editor.

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