Home > writing > Character, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.

Character, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.

Do you want to write interesting stories, or boring ones? The answer is obvious: to avoid making a yawner story (for both your readers and yourself), you want a main character that is not boring to be around.

And all you have to do is HATE. YOUR. CHARACTERS.

A common quote that is passed around the writing-sphere is “Chase your character up a tree, then throw rocks at him.” In other words, don’t give your character an easy time of it. Easy is boring. If something can go wrong, make it go wrong 100% of the time. Be relentlessly mean to him. Don’t give him a break. Or, if you do give him a break, it’s only to make the final jab in the gut that much more painful. Anything else is pulling punches and playing fair.

Start with what your character cares about the most. If your character cares about something, then attacking that thing (or person) will cause him the most pain. From a writing standpoint, pain is good.

This means you have to know your character well enough. A sketchy character with a cardboard personality will not have likes and wants, just action scenes. Work on what motivates him. Then hit it hard.

I’m going to give you a real-life example. My wife and I are expecting our first child, a boy. The little guy has been moving around a lot recently, and feeling him bump around inside his mommy’s belly has pleased me to no end.

Princess just started her third trimester, and just at this time, we realized that two or three days flew by without any movement. We started to get worried. After all, the book we’re reading (which is an excellent book in every way) tells us to time our baby’s movements, and if they’re too slow or nonexistent, we should worry and see the doctor immediately. So, we spent an anxious night losing sleep, full of worry, wondering if our baby is okay and afraid that he’s not.

If this were a work of fiction, the point where we realize the baby is not moving is chasing the character up a tree. But it doesn’t stop there. A writer who wants a good, dramatic story will throw rocks by thinking of what more can go wrong.

With a little bit of imagination, we can think of all sorts of things that can go wrong when an expectant couple fears for the safety of their unborn child:

  • The couple can start to blame each other, perhaps suspecting that some habit of the father’s (such as smoking) or the mother’s (such as drinking) is to blame. A loud argument erupts before even there is a trip to the doctor.
  • The father throws the mother into the car and speeds them off to the emergency room. On the way they have an accident and the baby is hurt. Now they don’t know if the baby was really in trouble before, but now it’s too late.
  • The father cannot function. He goes off to the bar/gym/work and gets hammered/injured/fired.
  • The father suspects his wife of hurting the baby on purpose. He begins to confide in a female coworker.

I’ve purposely focused on the father’s reactions, mostly. If I tried to brainstorm for the mother, I would easily double this list. But, clearly by adding some carefully selected reactions and overreactions we can make a bad situation worse. Even if the baby is healthy, we have added a level of complication that we wouldn’t have if we went the easy (boring) route and just went to the doctor in the first place. Chase your character up the tree and throw rocks at him!

(BTW, Princess and I did take the boring route and went to the doctor. The baby is fine, but he’s not moving as much as before because he’s running out of room in there! It’s funny that in real life, boring is so much better.)

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