Thursday, January 31, 2019

On Writing Disappointment: How Not Getting Everything They Want Builds Characters

On Writing Disappointment

The world is built on mounds of disappointment. Nearly every successful man or woman today will tell you that they've weathered their fair share of sad and unlucky times; that finding their way through the darkness eventually made them stronger and better able to appreciate their success.  We've all faced bitter disappointment, and we've allowed it to shape us. In the same way that life has handed you lemons, it's the author's responsibility to hand lemons over to their characters. 

Now, I'm not talking about run of the mill, stepped in gum, lost my car keys, my dog ran away, bad luck. Not the normal kind of I didn't get the job, I failed the test, the guy I like doesn't like me, disappointment. When we set out to create characters, we must take every awful moment and every terrible disappointment and make it WORSE. Why? We're building character (s). Human beings are meat, electrical impulses and thought. Without thought we'd be nothing more than wandering zombies. And the way we think about things, the way we see them, is called perspective. Every character's perspective on the world will be different based on his experiences. It's the author's job to show the reader what the worst experiences can do to a person. 

When a main character experiences loss, for example, that will shape his vision of the world around him. It's up to the author to use this experience to make this character seem more real to the audience. Is he angry at the world because of the loss? Does he blame himself? Is he depressed? Again, the way the character reacts in this situation is built upon a million other smaller, less impactful, losses. We can't tell the reader about them all because we don't have that kind of time, typically. But it's easy to clue the reader in on what kind of person your character is by giving him BIG LOSS to deal with. It's not a far stretch to imagine that a character who deals with loss by punching it out at the gym might get into fights with people who annoy him, just so he can keep on using that coping mechanism. 

One of my favorite things to do as an author is to flip the reader's expectations of my character's behavior. Perhaps, up until now, my character has been a quiet, unassuming man in the suburbs. But now I can give him a challenge, a disappointment or a hurt, and show the reader that everything they knew about this character on the surface was simply that-- on the surface! It's a fun and typically painless way to build those characters by playing against reader expectation.

Typically, there isn't much to say about a character who is always happy, always gets what he wants, and always wins. Those kinds of characters don't hold the readers' attention because IT'S NEVER THAT EASY! There's no challenge to overcome, no obstacles standing in his path to help us test his mettle. Readers are looking for the rawest, purest moments of emotion from our characters. The best way to provide that is to HURT them a lot. 

One of my favorite authors, Sherrilyn Kenyon, makes her characters suffer tremendously, but always with the idea that with sacrifice and pain comes the possibility of redemption and reward. Those moments are what bring readers back over and over again.

The League: Nemesis Rising, Books 1-3: Born of Night, Born of Fire, Born of Ice by [Kenyon, Sherrilyn]

So, the moral of the story is that authors have the terrible but satisfying job of disappointing characters over and over again, because it is in their darkest moments that we see the true nature of our characters come to light. I'm never above a heartbreak in the pursuit of true character building, but where there is heartbreak their should eventually be love. There are many books where characters are tested again and again, never to find or achieve their reward, but readers come back to them no matter the ending. They've fallen for the characters, the people that the author has created, and will come back for their stories even if their endings are unhappy. 

So--- disappoint your characters, break them. Because from their pain, great characters will emerge!


  1. And I thought giving a WWI front doctor a severe PTSD on page 2 was too much... I’m on page 200 something now



ARC Readers Needed!

Do you love to read? ARC readers get exclusive access to books before they're published. If you like science fi...