Monday, February 13, 2012

Writing in 140: Making Characters Suffer

Question: Main character goes through an entire story and does not suffer—good or bad for your book?

Answer: Bad. Characters must suffer. It’s what drives readers to read the book. They want to see how the character gets out of the situation(s) you place her or him in—or if s/he will. And not only should that character suffer, but we should see her or him suffer, too. It’s one thing to be told that a character is suffering, but it’s a whole other (and better) thing to show the suffering—let us be a part of it with all of our senses. Readers need to see your character hurting, wanting for something and unable to have it. They need to see struggle, strife—what we call conflict.

So, what are you making your main character suffer through?

Writing in 140 is my attempt to say something somewhat relevant about writing in 140 words or less.
Shon Bacon is an author, doctoral candidate, editor, and educator. She has published both creatively and academically. Shon also interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment. Currently, Shon is busy editing, writing, and pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University.

Bookmark and Share


  1. So true, Shon, and if suffering by the POV character is a signpost on the road to success, The Rosen Singularity should be on the way to becoming a bestseller. Love and love lost, moral dilemma, personal sacrifice, success and failure--it's got it all.

    I would add to your 140 words that the suffering and conflict must make sense, be part of a thread of meaning and intention that builds a coherent story. Just throwing things at your characters and watching them try to cope is uncreative writing that leaves readers shrugging their shoulders.

    --Larry Constantine (Lior Samson)

  2. I agree with Larry that character suffering must be a natural outgrowth of the story. Also, it must be consistent with the character(s). Often our suffering is of our own making; our faults, bad decisions, insecurities, etc., create pain, discontent, and situations that cause us great grief - sometimes worse. That of our characters won't be any different.

    You mention, Shon, that readers want to see how characters escape the scenarios we put them in. I'd like to take that a step further (which you obviously can't do in 140 words). We create our characters with certain personality traits - with strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, good and bad backgrounds, and so forth. Well-developed characters will tell their own stories if we allow them to do so. We may not have to put them anywhere, especially after our initial placement of them in the story. They'll go where they need to go on their own.

    I'm currently working with a fantasy writer on her second book. She sits down at her computer, puts her fingers on the keyboard, and types whatever her characters tell her. She is often surprised at where their paths lead her, but it's always consistent with their personality traits and the story line. Her characters are well-defined, and she knows what they will and won't do. Nothing pops up that doesn't fit them, and the subtle groundwork that always seems to have been laid keeps the story flowing logically. Do they suffer? Oh, yeah! Is the reader captivated? Definitely!

    Nice post, Shon! In just 140 words, you always make us think.


  3. My main character is currently suffering through a pain in the neck husband. I agree that characters need to suffer, but would add that it doesn't necessarily need to be life or death suffering. Not all of your characters need to get cancer or be in a car accident or lose a parent.

  4. I love making my characters suffer. I give them romances that don't seem to go right, or illnesses that threaten them or bad guys chasing them. I usually make everything be okay at the end, but sometimes I let readers wonder, as in the case of a series.

    Morgan Mandel

  5. Hey, if I have to suffer, my characters are gonna suffer too.

  6. Not necessarily "suffer", imo, but at least "grow". Suffering is probably the easiest way to achieve that end, but I think any story in which the characters can learn some truth about themselves, and still be interesting, is worthy of praise!

  7. Shon was just a character in a short story I wrote, and her apartment blew up while she was having lunch at the Corner Cafe. :D

  8. Suffering, coming to terms with the cause of the suffering, then dealing with it is the thread in many if not most stories. I don't mind reading books where I'm not told outright why the protagonist is in pain. I know at some point it will be revealed. Usually, when it is, I think, ahhh, of course, I see.

  9. Absolutely vital to show how a character is suffering or whatever conflict is happening as he or she is trying to attain a goal or resolve a bad situation. Thanks for that reminder, Shon. Too often we want to simply tell the reader as that is so much easier than finding a way to show it.

    In my current WIP, my central character has been wrongly accused of kidnapping babies, and because of some things in her past, she is terrified that she will not be able to prove her innocence.

  10. Great point, Shon. Suffering works in our stories because it's the only thing that works in life. Change is painful, and we don't want to do it until our only other choice is even more painful.

    Did you ever make a meaningful change, for instance, just because your mother told you to? (If you said yes--really?) More likely, you stayed your course until some very real circumstances forced you to reconsider your position. That is a lesson learned, and learned forever.

    Pain is a powerful teacher--and because your reader knows this, she buys that inedible change you're going for in your climax. She will not buy it, however, if your character simply sits down, thinks about it, and decides to change.

  11. Good one, Shon. It was hard for me to learn to do that. I've been accused of being "too nice." LOL

  12. Larry, SO GLAD you wrote that second paragraph because it's SO important, too. I've read (and edited) stories in which everything and the kitchen sink is thrown at the main character without rhyme or reason. That's just as tiring to read as it is to read a story devoid of conflict.

  13. Very true, Linda. Having conflict that's organic to the character is vital. There are some stories I've read that I can see the writer didn't seem to have a firm idea on who his/her character was. And I would think if you're going to develop conflict, then you HAVE to know your character, right? You have to know how certain situations would affect the character based on his/her personality.

  14. Brianna, and that's true, too. I remember when I was young and a family member told me that suffering is suffering. We can't (and shouldn't) place suffering on a scale so that we know who suffers the most. When you are in the midst of your suffering, it hurts just as much for you as someone else's suffering. Cancer for one character might be her suffering just as a losing a job and then one's home is suffering for another character.

    There's no rule that a conflict has to be life-threatening, but then again, I believe all conflict threatens the life a character has known.

  15. I like your way of thinking, Christopher! *chuckling*

  16. J.R., I might argue that for every growth there is a bit of suffering. It, I think, depends on your definition of suffering. I think back on all the "growing" I've done, and I can't think of one instance where there wasn't a bit of discomfort, an "I can't do this" thought, a second or two where I didn't try to grow, and on and on. To me, those are instances of suffering, too.

  17., I'm a character, eh, Dani!? Too, too funny!

  18. Oh my gosh! That's what I need help with! I knew I was missing something! Thanks!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...