Torture Your Characters

“Torture your characters more,” she told me after we talked for fifteen minutes about the book I’d just finished writing.

More? I thought. Torture her more?! I’d already done some irreparable damage to her physically, and mentally she was a total mess, I thought. What more could I realistically do to this poor character. People don’t go through that much torture in so short a time, not in real life…

But, the thing is, they do.

Not to be a Debbie Downer, but we live in a horribly broken world. People, good people, are tortured every day by disease, accidents, relationships, good decisions, bad decisions, inevitable decisions…

They say it never just rains, and clichés are cliché for a reason, aren’t they?

I was reminded of that this week. Through conversations with new people, but then it struck home when someone I love, someone dear to my heart, was dealt more torture than I thought fair for one person. From cars dying suddenly to fights with insurance agents she was already battling with the trials of being a new mom and then suddenly she found herself unexpectedly rushing to the emergency room with a close family member…and honestly, that’s not even the half of it. They’ve had enough torture to fill the pages for days to come.

So why on Earth would people want us to torture our characters then? Aren’t they sick of that from their own lives? They experience it themselves—why live through it with characters too?

I thought about this, and concluded that characters who experience life difficulties remind us of two things:

  • We are not alone in our pain.
  • Things always get better after the rain.

In the midst of pain, it is so easy to forget that there are others who share our burdens, sorrows, and even our experiences. There are those who DO know what we are going through and CAN give us hope. Sometimes we aren’t willing to hear that from our friends, so fiction can help—at least until we are ready to go back to our real world again.

Both of these lessons are hard to hold on to when you are going through the fire yourself, but when you’ve connected to a favorite character whose gone through the flames and come out on the other side refined, and not burned, it helps us remember that we can too.

So go ahead, writers, torture your characters. And readers, remember, it’s going to be OK.


Ashley Carmichael is the author of Valerie’s Vow, a Christian Romance which can be purchased at Second Wind Publishing or Amazon. Follow Ashley on twitter @amcarmichael13 and Facebook.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Torture Your Characters

  1. The other side of that coin—and a coin always has two sides—is that readers read to escape from their own mundane existence. Would they rather read about boy wizards or conspiracy theories that depict Christ as fathering a child, or a woman in an abusive relationship disguised as a love story, or would they truly rather read about a single mother who was abused herself as a young girl and now married to a philandering husband?

    You use the term “torture”, which is another way of saying that all good fiction depicts a protagonist who must overcome obstacles set before them.

    I’m no longer certain that consumers care about connecting with characters to whom they can relate. Popular contemporary fiction seems to indicate that consumers would rather simply be taken for a ride, and the more dangerous the ride the better.

    Before I found publication with Second Wind, a number of agents and publishers told me that they liked my work, thought I was talented, but they didn’t think there was a large market for my novels—stories about everyday people dealing with the everyday issues of love, loss, regret and, sometimes, not so happily ever after endings.

    I’d like to think there is a market for what I write, but a look at the bestseller list seems to indicate otherwise.

    Sorry for playing devil’s advocate, but it’s what I do!

    • I don’t think it’s about playing devil’s advocate. It’s bringing up a valid point about the publication debate and markets vary with the changing tides and seasons. Escapism is definitely “in” right now and who knows for how long that might be the case. But torturing your characters can mean anything from providing an obstacle like cancer (Breaking Bad isn’t a book but you have a very ordinary character there to whom people related and went on an extraordinary ride with–and the concept applies!) to magic and dragons and vampires (imagine my shudder here–not that all those are bad. I aenjoy some fantasy but could do without the overkilll). However, I don’t think fantasy and action are the only things that sell. They’re important elements, but conflict and rising to overcome it…that is what sells, and that really is what all fiction needs.

  2. Ashley, I’m in an escapist phase of reading right now, so reading about too much conflict (even if it is overcome) is not what I want to read much of these days. I have to interrupt it with lighter, more hopeful subject matter to keep my emotional state balanced. While I agree there must be conflict to make fiction work, I find I want it to be minimal. I’m currently reading a cozy mystery with lots of funny moments. It suits me for now.

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