Make your characters suffer. You’ve probably heard this before. It’s nothing new. However, writers don’t always know what it means—what it really means.
There are two things you need to understand in order to properly implement this rule.
1) Making a character suffer is NOT about other characters treating him/her badly.
2) Making a character suffer IS about making him/her fail when trying to achieve his/her goal.
In other words, making a character suffer is about conflict that comes up to prevent him/her from succeeding. Yes, that sometimes means another character will treat him/her badly, but there needs to be more to it than just that. If Joe puts Nancy down and teases her every day, he would technically be making her suffer. The way this would work toward following the rule would be for this behavior to get her down. Really down. She might even contemplate suicide because she doesn’t see a way out of this situation, and she can’t take it anymore. That would be a part of her black moment. However, it wouldn’t stop there. Something would happen to give her the courage to stand up to the bully and/or take charge of the situation. She would show character growth because she used the experience to better herself.
Basically, if the method you’re using to make your character suffer doesn’t move the plot along or allow for character growth, it’s the wrong kind of suffering and could appear contrived.
Another way writers sometimes make their characters suffer is by having one thing after another happen to him/her. Watch out for this. It too could feel contrived. Adding conflict isn’t just about blocking the character from achieving his/her goal. It’s also about pushing the character’s growth and should come from choices he/she makes. For example, Morgan and Anne go out after midnight to slay a vampire, but this leaves Kelly home alone. The vampire takes advantage and kidnaps Kelly and holds her hostage until Morgan and Anne give him the secret key. Their choice of going out at that time and leaving Kelly vulnerable led to this situation. And now, Morgan and Anne have to come up with a plan to save Kelly. This moves the plot forward because the characters are making choices and winning or losing battles (situations) because of the decisions they made.
A story that keeps throwing things at the characters, forcing them to react but not act (or plan their next move) will lead to a series of episodes aka episodic writing. This happened and then this happened and then this happened. Let’s use Morgan, Anne, and Kelly’s example. Instead of Morgan and Anne deciding to go out and catch the vampire, the three would be at Kelly’s and the vampire would strike. He would still take Kelly, but rather than Morgan and Anne coming up with a plan to rescue her, they’d wait to see what happens next. Maybe another vampire would come and they’d fight him off. And then the leader of the vampires would show up, and they’d have to fight him too. In the first example, they could still encounter those other vampires, but that would happen on their journey to save Kelly. Do you see the difference? It’s the same conflict—vampires attacking them—but because in the first example it would happen as they’re trying to achieve a goal, it moves the story forward. In the second example, the characters aren’t making choices and therefore won’t be able to grow. Characters grow by making mistakes and learning from them, and by succeeding and learning from that. They don’t grow if they sit around and wait for things to happen to them and then react.
When you implement this rule, remember to ensure the suffering your character experiences will move the story forward and allow character growth.
How have you made your characters suffer?
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