Whatís the Worst
Thing You Can Do to Your Characters?
by Jason Black
Think about your work in progress, and ask yourself, ďWhatís the
worst thing I could do to my protagonists?Ē Kill all his friends?
Push him off a cliff? Make him step on a land mine? Burn his house
down? Let him get dumped, loudly, in public? Or maybe just shoot
him in the groin?
Now think about whatís the best thing you could do to him, and
consider the following. For your book to be successful, you need
readers to be rooting for your protagonist. You need readers to be
in his corner, cheering him on. For readers to cheer your
protagonist on, they need to see him suffering, struggling, and
failing along the road to success. For him to suffer, you have to
do the worst things imaginable to him that fit within the parameters
of your story.
So actually, the best thing we can do for our protagonists is to
do our worst. Funny how that works. The kindest thing we can
do is make them suffer; make their journey as hard as we can make it
without sacrificing the readerís suspension of disbelief. The worst
thing we can do for them is to be kind to them, by giving them every
advantage in their quest, by confronting them with ineffectual
adversaries and at every step doing our utmost to smooth the way
Let me tell you about two unpublished books Iíve read recently.
These are manuscripts clients sent to me for, among other things,
advice on their character development and story structure. These
are both books that I hope become published, because at their core
each one has something really unique to offer.
Book number one is a Clancy-esque political intrigue spy thriller.
To be fair, the author did give his protagonist some problems,
except for one thing: The problems are all in his home life. His
difficulties and challenges do not relate to the main story goal of
smuggling the you-know-what out of you-can-guess-where. As far as
the potentially thrilling part of the thriller goes, the
protagonist made a plan and it went off pretty much without a
hitch. I wasnít thrilled. I couldnít really root for the hero
because, honestly, he didnít need me to. He was doing just fine on
I understand this protective urge. We authors grow to love our
characters. We have created them, thought obsessively about them,
nurtured them in our minds. We have taken care of them, and as with
anything one cares for, we come to love them. It is only human not
to want to hurt them.
But it kills your novel dead. The worst thing we can actually do
to our characters is nurture and coddle them. Instead, we must let
our characters get into troubleóreal, serious troubleóso they can
get themselves out. We have to let them get hurt so they can
overcome. We cannot treat them like toddlers, putting gates across
the stairs and padding the coffee-table corners. We canít hover like
mother hens, waiting to snatch them out of trouble the instant
danger looms. If we do, readers wonít root for them, and there goes
any hope of a successful novel.
Iíve made this mistake myself, in earlier novels that remain
unpublished. If I ever want them to be published, I need to go back
and make things worse. Fixing the story structure by
introducing horrible difficulties for my protagonists also makes the
So what about book number two? The protagonist in that one is a
three year-old girl. How can you resist coddling a three year-old
girl? Well, ask this author. In the bookís opening scene, the girl
is already in a desperate situation. The author has chronically
malnourished the girl until she canít even walk, and has given her
nothing but a wooden box for a bed and filthy rags for padding. Oh,
and she has been abandoned by her parents somewhere in the middle of
the woods in 1865. Does a kindly woodsman come along ten minutes
later to rescue her? No. Days of hunger and thirst pass, death
slowly approaching, before she is saved.
That little girl has problems upon problems. Every one of them just
breaks my heart. Every one of them would make any lesser person give
up. But she doesnít. She views her situation with all the naive
optimism innate to any three year-old child. Her challenge, her
obstacle in that opening scene, was simply to hold on. To not give
So when she was finally rescued, you bet I was rooting for her. I
rooted like crazy for that helpless, indomitable little girl,
praying she could hold on until help arrived. I rooted for her
because itís all I could do. The very depth of her troubles made me
root for her as much as I have for any character Iíve encountered in
a New York Times bestselling book.
As writers, isnít that what we all want? Donít we want our readers
rooting for our protagonists? Donít we want them cheering when our
heroes and heroines emerge victorious?
Of course we do. But that wonít happen unless we make it hard.
If we donít make the obstacles seemingly insurmountable, the
problems seemingly unsolvable, then we make our charactersí jobs too
easy and their victories meaningless. We make the characters
themselves boring and lifeless.
When it comes to your novelís protagonists, you nurture them best
by doing your worst.
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Jason Black is a book doctor who actively blogs about character
development. He will be presenting a session on book doctoring at
the 2010 PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason
or read his blog, visit his website at