• Mistreating Your Characters

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Character     Comments 42 comments

    Discussion questions: What is the worst thing you’ve ever done to one of your fictional characters? What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen another writer do to one of his/her fictional characters? And why do you think conflict and obstacles are so important in fiction?


    In our recent discussion on inserting yourself into a book, our pal David L. asked, “What was the worst thing you ever did to a hero/heroine?”

    That question immediately grabbed me. I recall a workshop instructor once saying something to the effect of, “A short story or novel succeeds in direct proportion to the amount of horror you throw at your protagonist.”

    Now, it’s obviously not that cut-and-dried. Which she knew. But the point was, good fiction involves conflict and obstacles.

    Most fiction can be summarized this way: A character wants something–he or she has a goal. But something stands in the way. An obstacle, or many obstacles. (Obstacli?) And he or she must overcome those obstacli to achieve the goal.

    And the more awful those obstacli are, the more affecting will be his or her success; i.e., the goal tastes better the more difficult it was to achieve. It often works out that way in real life, too, doesn’t it?


    I don’t believe I’ve ever been particularly brutal to a protagonist.

    The first thing that came to mind when David asked the question is a character I threw off the top of the building, and on the way down, his life flashes before his eyes. It isn’t so much a flash as it was a long, drawn-out exploration of all his mistakes.

    It wasn’t a great story, nor a particularly inventive idea.

    Another character wants to be a baseball player, but he loses his throwing hand in a car accident.

    (For the record, both of these characters are based on the same person, a kid I grew up with.)

    I once had a protagonist pour some of his dead father’s ashes into a full bottle of gin and drink it. That was gross. But he does it intentionally.

    The protagonist of my novel also wants to be a baseball player and is also going to lose his hand.

    Remember! There are no new stories, just new ways of telling old stories.


    Now it’s your turn! What is the worst thing you’ve ever done to one of your fictional characters?

    What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen another writer do to one of his/her fictional characters?

    And why do you think conflict and obstacles are so important in fiction?

    Let us know below!


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2019 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”


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    Anonymous GuestDavid Duhrdavid lemkeB.A. MealerTadd Recent comment authors
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    Hans De Léo
    Hans De Léo

    In answer to your question, I offer this: “Allen Parker was your average middle-class computer scientist, carving out a life for him, his wife, and two children. Then one day he woke up in the body of Helen Ceavers, a nano-medicine specialist working at a research facility halfway across the galaxy, four hundred years in the future. Now he’s must come to terms with what’s happened, learn a whole new way to live, all while keeping the mind system from those that would stop at nothing to get it.” Here’s a link: https://www.amazon.com/Anothers-Place-Time-experience-Changeling-ebook/dp/B07JM1VFQS/ref=pd_ybh_a_7?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=5HFNBH31WN2HD1EX2ZZZ Yes, I know it’s a shameless plug,… Read more »


    I had a protag drink Satan’s blood to ensure she would become the first woman US president. That seems pretty bad but it’s probably not unusual. I had a torture scene in my currently-being-written novel, but I cut it for lack of relevancy. I turn to the classics for my award for “worst thing done to a fictional character.” In Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus,” Lavinia is raped, her tongue cut out, and her hands amputated. That whole play is about escalating revenge, but it’s not the Bard at his best. Conflict builds the tensions and sharpens the hooks of drama, as… Read more »


    Oh, boy, thank you because now I have no choice but to spend this whole weekend writing like mad to make it up to the poor guy. First of all, let me say, drinking the ashes thing is pretty gruesome but also quite original… what happened to him after that? Anyhow, my story has four or five heroes, actually, but one of them is a K9 cop who lives life to the fullest and is a very powerful man–large, strong, handsome, head of the department, most highly decorated K9 team in the state, has a miracle of a dog as… Read more »

    Elissa Malcohn
    Elissa Malcohn

    My novelette “Lazuli” (Asimov’s, Nov. 1984) centers around the sexual abuse of a child. That story alone (my first sale outside the small press) made me a finalist for the 1985 John W. Campbell Award, given to the best new science fiction writer of the year (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_W._Campbell_Award_for_Best_New_Writer). I wrote it in three days over the course of about ten, needing recovery time for myself after each session. I’ve read George R.R. Martin’s five (so far) books in his series A Song of Ice and Fire. Anyone who’s watched Game of Thrones knows how brutal he is to his characters. But… Read more »


    The farther I get into this book, the more I’m not sure who the ‘main’ character is…. the protagonist hero is slowly broken down over months, at one point convinced his wife is dead, and finally being stolen away and turned to evil in the antagonist’s demon’s stronghold. meanwhile, his wife, who had been learning swordplay from him, likewise believes him dead, sees a friend die unexpectedly brutally in front of her, gets buried under the remains of a rock golem, almost dying from internal wounds. When she finally heals from that, she picks herself up, only to find herself… Read more »

    B.A. Mealer

    I guess I’m pretty good to my characters. The worst I’ve done is to have one living on t the street, starving and being accosted by a pimp. One had a real nasty back story where she was kept in a brothel, drugged and almost killed. That is in the Jillian Factor. The o the book isn’t titled yet. Considering most of my books are contemporary crime novels, there aren’t any demons or paranormal,so mats of my stuff is pretty tame.

    david lemke
    david lemke

    I’m not a nice person. I may be nice to the living and I get along well with the dead, but if your a character in one of my stories or novels, run.
    My hero’s wife in “Intrusion,” Meadhbh, was murdered for her own good. The hero, Laurel, was raped in jail, possessed, and in the spirit realm, was blasted to smithereens.

    In “2084” my hero Zane while in a prison hospital, has his arm amputated in unnessacary surgery without anastetic or drugs and has everything taken from him. Later a person who he thinks is his friend, takes over his mind.

    Anonymous Guest
    Anonymous Guest

    I don’t mistreat any character

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