Writing Characters: Playing the Cruelty Game

Think about your favorite characters in your favorite stories or novels. For me, that would be people such as Cory Mackenson from Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life. Or Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. Or Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. Do your favorite characters travel a straight road, or rather are the beset by obstacles at every turn?

When you fall in love with a character as a reader, you might wish that they had things easier, that they could solve the mystery, defeat the monsters, win their true love, or whatever it is they’re fighting for. But if they actually do all those things easily, if there aren’t obstacles or the obstacles aren’t sufficiently challenging, your reading experience won’t be rewarding.

So, as writers, we need to remember this and make sure we put our characters on a twisting, rocky road: Be cruel to your characters in order to be kind to your readers.

At times, I know I have a tendency to go easy on my characters, to let them off with a warning, let’s say, when I should be cracking them over the head with a ton of bricks. I like my creations and I don’t want them to suffer. But it’s time to get serious and start doing some damage—I’ve got to put away my feelings for my characters and get cruel. I need to remind myself, again, of my favorite characters that others have written. Let’s take a look at Frodo’s journey.

Here’s a guy (a hobbit) who’s just minding his own business peacefully at home when the weight of the world is dropped in his lap. To save his homeland for others, he has to leave, taking the dangerous Ring away, which he’s perfectly willing to do. At each step of the journey, he thinks that’s as far as he’ll need to go, that he can pass the burden to someone else, but circumstances push him further. Once in Rivendell among the Elves, he believes he can finally lay aside this quest—but again, it’s not to be. It’s still Frodo that must bear the Ring, and again he reluctantly takes up that challenge.

Throughout his journey to Mount Doom, the physical and emotional toll on Frodo—from lost companions, conflicts, and the increasing weight of the Ring itself—becomes nearly too much for the hobbit. But all the while, knowing the world is in peril and will fall to darkness if he fails, he continues on. After successfully destroying the Ring and receiving all the well-earned accolades, he eventually travels back home only to discover that his companions and the idyllic land they fought to preserve have all been forever altered by the wars and conflicts of the wider world. It’s heartbreaking—and for the reader, it’s also perfectly beautiful.

Tolkien definitely knew how to be cruel to his characters. Fantasy and action might not be your thing, but I still say cruelty is the name of the game. As a good example of cruelty to characters in a more mainstream novel, I recently read The Given Day by Dennis Lehane. This is a historical novel that begins in 1918 at the close of World War I with the outbreak of the influenza pandemic. At that moment, one of the main characters, Luther, is working as a numbers runner for a crime boss in Tulsa.

Luther is basically a sympathetic character, even though we see him make some stupid choices—such as working for the crime boss. His partner is skimming money and Luther doesn’t do anything about it. During the flu outbreak, when no one is gambling and therefor no new money is coming in, the boss—who knows Luther’s partner has been stealing and that Luther didn’t report it—makes the two of them go around to collect from the sick who have outstanding debts.

At the first house, they’re met by a man who laughs at their attempt to collect money. He has none, and in the house behind him, the rest of his family is sick or already dead from the flu, so he feels he has nothing to lose. However, Luther does have something to lose; he knows his wife and unborn child will pay the consequences if he doesn’t collect. He takes action, uses violence against the sick and weakened man, then takes the man’s car and other household possessions to make up for the debt.

As a reader, you hate Luther in that moment—but you kind of love him, too. And you love the skill of the writer that creates such a rich, dramatic moment—such pure character conflict. This happens fairly early in the novel, and naturally it leads to further violence and trouble down the line for Luther. He continues to try to do right, and is frequently pushed in the wrong direction. It’s good stuff.

The point is that the more difficult the situation for the characters, the more difficult their choices, the more enjoyable the experience is going to be for readers as they watch to see how those characters will develop. So be cruel!

Write your characters into situational corners—and don’t let them sneak out on some random coincidence or deus ex machina. Give them moral or ethical dilemmas where any choice is equally bad in some way—then make them make a choice. Test their faith (or lack of it); destroy their sense of purpose, their sense of self, identity; push them to the edge, and then dangle them over the abyss for a while—but don’t let them fall! Death is too kind. Force them to go on from there, and what will they do?

Be cruel. And have fun! Your readers will thank you.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins

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4 thoughts on “Writing Characters: Playing the Cruelty Game

  1. Marianne Knowles

    Great advice, Brian! I’ve posted to the Writers’ Rumpus Facebook page.
    I recently read the upper-middle-grade novel THE RIVERMAN by Aaron Staumer. [http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17934459-the-riverman] He packs an amazing amount of conflict into the six weeks of his main character’s life, some of it of the character’s own unintentional creation. Fantastic book, for that and many other reasons.

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    1. bkwins Post author

      Thanks, Marianne, and I appreciate you sharing! I’m not familiar with that author, as that’s not an age range I typically read in. But it just goes to show how true the concept is–doesn’t matter the whether it’s adult fiction or YA, mainstream or genre, the reader is going to be engaged by deep character conflict.

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  2. Pingback: The Hidden Unlikeable Character | Cuisine of Loneliness

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