How to Hurt the Ones You Love

Within the next two months, I'll be writing an article, "How to Hurt the Ones You Love," for an upcoming edition of the Romance Writer's Report, the trade publication of the Romance Writers of America. I chose the topic for this article based on the number of women -- nice women -- who tell me that one of their biggest challenges is heaping misery on the characters they've come to know and love. And not just misery, but the toughest challenges of that fictional person's life.

This has never been a problem for me. Maybe because, all rumors to the contrary, I'm not really that nice of a person. More probably because I find stories without conflict boring as hell, or I have this deeply-buried need to play the evil goddess. (See Kali, Indian goddess of destruction, above.) But unlike Kali, I don't get drunk on the blood of my victims (although I've been known to fantasize about such when stuck in gridlock traffic). I suffer along with my characters, even as I find their Achilles tendon and draw back my bowstring to take my best shot at it. (Let's hope there's not some kind of law against mixing mythologies in blog posts.)

If you're really going to show a character's growth, to shake this person down to the bedrock of her convictions, she is going to have to be severely challenged. There is going to have to be pain. Otherwise, why would she change a way of thinking that's been working for her (however poorly)? How would she get to a place where she could move beyond the flaw crippling her and find the strength to overcome challenges that would destroy the lesser version of herself? How can she deserve that happy ending and leave the readers cheering when she reaches it?

Do you ever find yourself thinking, "No, I can't do that to my characters. Anything else - but not that"? There may be a few times when you shouldn't. (I draw the line at whacking little kids and stomping puppies. There's some pain that's too painful for me to read about, let alone write.) A lot of times, however, that one "unthinkable" challenge may be the one the hero has to face, the one that will break down the character and then allow him to re-form a more worthy incarnation.

I'm looking for feedback for this article. Do you struggle with the temptation to wimp out when it comes to conflict? Do you have any great techniques for overcoming this aversion? And (keeping to my Indian theme), are there any sacred cows -- places you won't go in which to heap abuse on those poor characters? If your comment is chosen for inclusion in the article (I'll be limited by space and possible repetition), I'll be sure to (with your permission) mention your name and (if you're published, though you don't have to be) most recent book.

Thanks in advance for your help!


Allison Brennan said…
Fascinating topic, Colleen. I don't hold back, and I don't really have a problem not holding back. I let the story dictate what needs to happen--and the individual personalities involved. The human factor.

Also, when we hold back the story can often become contrived--that "saved in the nick of time." Shouldn't bad things sometimes happen? I don't kill off my hero and heroine, obviously, but anything else goes.

I had a tough decision to make in my last book, FEAR NO EVIL. One of the major secondary characters had been kidnapped and she was to be killed live on the Internet within 48 hours. Previous victims had been raped live on the Internet--was I supposed to give her a pass because I liked her and she was the sister of the hero? It would have been contrived that she didn't get hurt, and if I changed the entire premise of the story, it wouldn't have worked.

I think it worked, and I also now have an incredible character who will come back in the future.
Toni said…
Like Allison, I don't have any problems throwing harsh, difficult situations at my favorite characters. In BOBBIE FAYE'S VERY (very, very, very) BAD DAY, she starts off with her trailer flooded, her electiricty turned off and then her brother kidnapped. Everything goes from very bad to pretty horrible at lightning speed, and I find that whenever the story feels too soft, (calm, dull, easy)... it's because I'm holding back on the consequences or the obstacles for my character.

Life doesn't hold back, and neither should we, in fiction. Who a character really is becomes defined by their choices under pressure. Anyone can say he's a pacifist, for example, but will he remain so when someone holds a gun to his child's head? Someone may truly believe they're cynical about family and have given up on them, but if they find out a brother is kidnapped and could be killed and they push themselves beyond all endurance to try to save that brother, that action speaks far louder than their self-declared apathy while simultaneously deepening the character. Choices define character, and if we don't give the characters significant choices, we're robbing ourselves of the opportunity to create deeper, more interesting characters in our stories.
Ellen said…
I agree that we need to let bad things happen to our characters, but this has been a problem for me. I always want to rush them through their troubles with minimal damage and have them emerge whole and changed with wondrous and glorious arcs.

Fortunately, my subconscious harbors darkness. So when I take a break from the manuscript, all manner of terrible things befall my protagonists--things my conscious mind could never conjure. I guess this is what Stephen King calls letting "the boys in the basement" do the work. I like to think of mine as the girls in the attic, but it amounts to the same thing. It's the place where our ideas dash around without interference. That's why I recommend walking away from your work now and then.
JoAnn Ross said…
This is one of my favorite writing topics! In fact, I've given lots of workshops over the years on it.

As someone who lived an early life over-brimming with conflict, when I first began writing, I didn't really like to dump conflict on characters I'd created and cared about.

I wanted to fix things for them. To heal them. Right away. But while a lack of conflict might be a nice goal in life, unfortunately, it's very bad for a story.

There's an old writing theory I learned years ago from Lawrence Block: Q. What do you do when your story slows down? A. You put another bear in the canoe.

Because conflict is character, by making our characters face an increasing series of obstacles through rising conflict, we show them continuing to grow. Which is important because if a character doesn't grow, he or she is static and no reader will care about him/her.

One of my pet peeves as a reader is when a writer simply tosses obstacles at the characters, having them solve the first one, then another, and another, on and on like a series of hurdles they're forced to overcome. That framework results in an episodic novel, a lot like those old roadrunner cartoons, which certainly doesn't demonstrate growth. (If it did, Wiley Coyote would have learned ages ago not to run off all those cliffs.)

Of course, Lord of the Rings is one of the few episodic stories that does work, proving once again that the only rule in writing is that there are no rules. :)

Without internal conflict, characters have no depth; without external conflict, there's no plot. Weaving them together is makes up our story.

Having said all that, I love writing romance because at least my poor, beleaguered characters are guaranteed a happy ending after all their travails!! LOL
Colleen, when you wrote about this on the Dorchester loop, it sort of puzzled me for a minute. I don't "do" things to my characters. I create them, conjure them, and then turn them loose. I buckle up and follow.

I like fully human characters, warts and all. Often, they do things a reader might not agree with, for as you say, if they are perfect then why have a story?

I also think the nature of the story dictates just how "bad" you need to be to make your characters walk through fire. Suspense is often hard, gritty realism--death, rape, beatings, etc., That would seem very out of place in a funny contemp.

My life is too hard these days. I don't want to sit at a computer writing about murder and rape, so I give my characters flaws and let them be less than perfect. From those actions, they learn the regret of making the wrong choice, and how they fight to become the better person they can be.
So many great & quotable responses. Thanks, Allison, Toni, Ellen, JoAnn, and Deborah. I'm really enjoying this discussion -- and learning from it, too.

I do agree, Deborah, that the type of book dictates the type of challenge the characters have to face. In a lighter book, the protagonist may grapple with the spectre of humiliation, the loss of a job, or the death of a goal (or potential relationship). This threat of "death" may be symbolic or literal, but it still has to be tough, I think.
Diana Groe said…
It's wonderful when life is good, when your children are on the honor roll and you or your husband (or both!) get promotions to dream jobs. It's a blessing to have solid relationships.

But no one wants to read about it.

We read to see how people come back from the abyss. We read to learn how others cope with loss. We cheer them on. But if it's too easy, we feel cheated.

I am a peace lover at heart. Given a choice, I avoid conflicts, but I can't do that in my fiction. I force myself to make bad things happen to good people. And I make sure they fail at first.

Whatever your character can't do without, you must take away from them. A secondary character they need desperately, you may have to kill.

In SILK DREAMS, my July 2007 release, I had to do away with someone I actually liked. It was one way to let my readers know that the gloves had come off and this story was no longer safe. My hero and heroine and all their friends were flying without a net. Is there a better way to ratchet up the stakes?

It's hard to hurt my characters. We all love wounded heroes, but it's excruciating to do the wounding myself. I think it's because in a very real sense, as writers we ARE all of our characters. We see through their eyes. We speak their words. We ache with their pain.

And yet, without their pain, there is no story.

So I need to be willing to walk down that dark alley, to taste betrayal, to lose someone dear. In the end, I also get to revel in my h/h's victory and bask in love most glorious.

It's a fair trade.

Feeling a little sadistic,
SILK DREAMS, "Lushly sensual, sumptuously written historical romance"--The Chicago Tribune
Joni Rodgers said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joni Rodgers said…
For me, it's the conflict that comes first, giving birth to the characters, who in turn give birth to the story, which finds its natural arc in the way human beings are changed by challenge.

While I was working on THE SECRET SISTERS, I kept returning to the idea that redemption is tragedy cross-pollinated with grace. I'm fascinated with the way people emerge from life's refining fires.
Kate Douglas said…
I'm a wimp, and since I write erotic romance, I have to be very careful with how much pain I put my characters through--unless I'm writing BDSM! However, I agree--there are times you have to hurt the ones you love, if only to provide conflict and motivation. My solution is to make it something in their past. Quite often my characters deal with the psychological aftereffects of trauma--be it rape, abandonment or whatever. One of the underlying themes in all my stories is that my protagonists can't truly love another person until they learn to love themselves--if the trauma of their past interferes with their personal sense of value, they need to deal with it before fully committing to love. The only violence and bloodshed I actually write usually happens to the bad guys, but only when they truly deserve it!
Bonnie Vanak said…
What a great topic! I've found that as my writing grows increasingly darker, so does the conflict my characters face. I'd rather see them explore the darkest sides of their personalities to challenge them and make them grow instead of giving them an easy way out.

It's also challenged me as a writer to keep characters likeable while making them dance on that razor-thin line crossing over to the shady side.

In The Scorpion & the Seducer, my May Leisure historical, the heroine has to face her deepest fear, that she's as evil as her natural-born father was because his blood runs in her veins. After a severe social snub, she begins writing an anonymous gossip column that threatens to ruin the hero's sister. In the end, she must decide if she will follow the path of her natural father or make the conscious decision to defy what others say is in her nature.

I also work as a writer for a charity and see a lot of poverty, suffering and deprivation in Third World countries. It seems like the more I see the darker side of life, the darker my writing gets. The upside is that I write romance, so no matter how many tragic or traumatic the story is or how much the characters suffer, they overcome the obstacles to have a happy ending. It doesn't always happen that way in real life. I wish it did.
Kathy Bacus said…
Great idea for an article, Colleen, and what terrific comments you've received!

As you know, I write a humorous mystery series and have a long-standing and intimate relationship with all of my characters--six books' worth of closeness so far. Your topic got me thinking about how exponentially more difficult it would be to inflict serious pain and loss on characters you have a long history with--i.e. in a series--as opposed to characters featured in a single book. I can't imagine how hard it would be to 'kill yer darlings' under those circumstances. It can be done--and done well. Patricia Cornwell comes to mind. And Elizabeth George. But I suspect the decisions to 'hurt the ones you love' in those cases didn't come particularly easy--and without some measure of grief and loss.

Another example is Allison Brennan's THE PREY. Allsion completely blew me away when she blew away her hero's brother. I kept thinking she won't do it. She can't do it. Well, she did it. And it worked. In a way nothing else would have.

All I can say is thank goodness my Calamity Jayne books are comedic in nature because I can't imagine having to whack any of my Grandville Gang. That would be like so not funny.

Which might lead me to wonder, as an author, if I have what it takes to get down and dirty with my characters if the need arose.

I'm happy to report I recently finished my very first hardboiled psychological thriller and it gave me an opportunity to experiment with elements that are off-limits in humorous mystery hybrids. You know. Playing rough with my characters. Being their worst enemy. Their most terrifying nightmares. Playing for keeps. And guess what...I did it! In fact, I had quite a good time doing it. (Don't know what that says about me but there you have it.)

On deciding when enough is enough in the more pain/more gain department, I try to keep in mind that each adversity I heap on my darlings is meant to be character revealing--not character building and certainly not character breaking. The hardship or loss I inflict on a character must reveal something about that character--or to that character--in a way no other trauma can do as effectively.

Great discussion!
Allison Brennan said…
Kathy, I didn't kill Michael. The killer shot him. It wasn't my fault, I swear. He went to the bar and how was I supposed to know the killer was following him? It just happened. And after it happened, I tried to save him, but it was too late. Really, I tried.
Thanks, everyone, for chiming in with such terrific insights. This article will be chock-full of great quotes!

Allison, your second comment reminds me of something I once heard about Flannery O'Connor, who used to show her pre-published stories to a little old neighbor woman, an unschooled lady. When O'Connor asked about a particular set of stories, the little old lady just shook her head, handed them back, and said something to the effect of, "That just shows you what some people will up and do."

Ever since, when people ask me why I "made" certain characters (usually villains) do this or that, I'll respond with that quote. Because all too often, these characters we invent surprise us, and it's when we try to stay their hands that the book begins to look/feel contrived.

I'm enjoying this discussion!
Farrah Rochon said…
I consider myself pretty nice, but I don't have a problem hurting characters when the situation warrants it, either. In fact, it seems as though the characters I love the most are the ones I hurt the most.

The one thing that gives me pause is reader reaction to the heartache I pour onto my characters. In my latest WIP, I put my hero (who happens to be my all-time favorite character, so far) through such emotional turmoil. When my sister, who is my first-reader, read the hero's dark moment, her first reaction was "You can't do this to him. Everyone is going to hate you!"

I agree. The emails will likely pour in from readers asking me how could I do such a thing.

However, this is the story. In my opinion, this has to happen to show just how strong a character my hero really is. Should I tone things down in order to prevent backlash from readers? As far as I'm concerned, nope. I'll just have to let everyone know that it hurt me just as much as it hurt the character.

This is a fabulous discussion, Colleen. I can't wait to read the article.
Marcia James said…
As an author of comic romantic suspense/mysteries, I don’t have a lot of graphic violence in my books, although my characters do deal with some pretty scary villains. If a character “needs” to be shot, beaten up, etc., I usually make it happen to a secondary character – someone close to the hero or heroine.

When I want to put my hero or heroine through pain, I create an emotional hell for them. I’m particularly fond of putting the clueless hero through a heart-sick purgatory after something he does causes the Dark Moment. ;-) I like to see the hero try to make it up to the heroine when he’s done something (almost) unforgivable.
-- Marcia ;-)
Kathy Bacus said…
Allison Brennan wrote: It wasn't my fault, I swear. He went to the bar and how was I supposed to know the killer was following him?

I get it, Allison. It was the drink that killed him. Hehee.
Anonymous said…
Posted on behalf of Brandy Jordan:

I have had a problem being too hard on my characters. I think there is probably soom deep rooter inner anxiety inside me that causes this problem when writing. Over the years, I've learned to be "less kind" to the characters - especially the heroine. However, I won't give any of my characters backstories which include rape, molestation or such. That being said, who knows what the future will bring - never say never, but at this moment, those areas are too painful for too many and I don't want my readers lost in the feelings they might have experienced themselves. I try to give my characters hurt that readers can empathize or sympathize but not so tragic it pulls the reader from the story.
-Brandy Jordan
Gemma Halliday said…
See, I have the opposite view from Kathy. I also write humorous mysteries, but I have no problem inflicting toture on my characters. I think the worse they're hurt, the funnier the situation becomes. In my second book (KILLER IN HIGH HEELS) I had way too much fun with a stun gun and in the third (UNDERCOVER IN HIGH HEELS) it's a can of pepper spray that makes the rounds.
Whenever I feel like there's a lull in one of my stories, I ask myself, "Okay, who gets it this time?"

Anonymous said…
Posted on behalf of Christie Craig:

1) “Bad things happen to good people. It so true, and even truer is the fact that when bad things do happen to good people, it causes an immediate emotional response from human beings who have anything that resembles a heart. It’s just human nature to feel empathy for innocent victims. Don’t believe it? Listen to the nightly news and how the reporters tell their stories. As

writers, just like the news reporter, it is our job to tap into the reader’s emotional response and empathy for our characters. One of the best ways to do this is to write about bad things happening to good people.”

2) “No pain, no gain. We’ve all heard the saying and while most of us are tempted to argue with it, if we seriously look at all the life lessons we’ve learned, there was probably some pain mixed in with the lessons that ultimately helped us grow into better human beings. Often, when I’m tempted to make things easier on my characters, I remember trying to teach my five-year-old son to ride a bike. My son would scream, “Don’t let go. Do not let go.” Every instinct in my body told me to hold on, to protect him. With my maternal instinct pumping through my overheated body, I forced myself to do the right thing. I let go. As a writer, I let my characters go, knowing they will get hurt, I’m even going to make sure of it. But as a writer I also know I’ve sent them out with a helmet and knee and elbow pads. I’m going to let them fall, fight the good fight, but they will win because I’ve created and armed them with enough strength to come out the winner.

3) We don’t call our main characters heroes and heroines for no reason. The definition of hero basically means someone with great courage, a protector, a survivor. Heroes overcome hurdles, they triumph over tragedy, they stand up against insurmountable odds and survive. Make things to easy on your characters and they will not honor the role you given them.
Anonymous said…
Posted on behalf Jane (Myers Perrine):

In the first book I ever wrote, I loved my hero and heroine so much that I didn't want there to be any conflict. The book was three chapters long.

In the first book I sold, a sweet Regency, the heroine is at a house party, falling in love not with the man she's engaged to but with a rake. What's the worst I could do to her? Have her parents show up.

At the end of my first Steeple Hill Love Inspired--The Path to Love--Mike Fuller, a secondary character, is happy, engaged, entering med. school and has found a deep faith. My editor said, "Jane, I want a sequel. Mike's story." So I had to destroy his life. He had to quit med school because his mother was getting out of prison and he had to take care of her. Because he quit med. school, his shallow fiancee broke up with him. With all that stress, he lost his faith.

Doing something terrible to your characters doesn't need to be murder, rape, or weapons., just terrible obstacles that really mess up their lives. is being naughty and refusing to post some people's comments. If you'd like to e-mail them to me a, I'll be glad to add them myself.

Thanks, and sorry about the trouble!
Rowena Cherry said…

Great topic!

I have to say that I agonized over whether or not to kill off a villian in Insufficient Mating Material.

I don't like to kill characters with such wonderful villainous potential as Django-Ra, particularly since he is sane, evil, and a brilliant and highly competitive duplicate bridge player who considers killing partners who don't play well.

It's such fun to be in his alien mind when he encounters --and understimates-- some female who appears to be dying her pubic hair blue, one hair at a time.

As for wimping out, maybe I do. One does have to identify with the heroine, and she does have to live happily ever after. So, there are violations that I do not consider appropriate, even if they would hurt her enormously.

Now... my editor is worried about the clanking, but I have decided to make a hero's life tough by putting the heroine in a chastity belt and throwing away the key.
Fabulous responses, everyone. What a terrific discussion.

Rowena, you crack me up. Dyed pubes and chastity belts! Now *that's* a particularly creative type of torture!
I don't have a problem putting obstacles in my h/h's path. Because (unlike real life), I know I'm going to have a happy ending. One of the joys of writing romance!:}
Kimberly Frost said…
I think a story is better if one doesn't shy away from hurting the characters one creates/loves. There's that old bit of writing advice that says: Put your heroine up a tree and then throw rocks at her. And trouble is certainly what keeps readers turning pages.

I think though that the tone of the story dictates how bad the trouble can be (ie are the characters killed in a bar like in Allison's story or pepper-sprayed as in Gemma's story.) Even in the funny stories the characters' lives can be in jeopardy, they just seem to bounce back more quickly in comedy.

As an author, I do sometimes struggle, but I force myself onward. I once wrote a terrible and emotional scene involving a wonderful hero, and I did have to cry a little with him. When my critique partners said they were moved by the scene, I knew I had done my job, which was satisfying even if it wasn't all that fun to write initially.

Amie Stuart said…
Is it too late? I don't normally pull out all the stops in my erotic romance, but I have a confession to make. I LIKE HURTING MY CHARACTERS. Hehe...I even remember the first time I did it. One of my characters not only trashed Thanksgiving for his entire family, he firebombed it. It was a total gas--no pun intended. I was shocked...then I was giddy for hours.

In my current wip I had to take my hero, wake him up and show him that his entire life was a lie, then he had to go kill someone. It was my first murder--but not my last. =)
I've really enjoyed this conversation -- haven't yet finished the article, so there's still time to add to it.

And Amie, once I started killing (fictional characters, that is), there was no stopping me. Mu, ha, ha! :)

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