Breaking Character

I got asked once if I base my characters off people I know in real life. I don’t, but not because people I know aren’t worth writing about. I have lots of people in my life that are great people, but I would never include them in one of my stories. There are two reasons:

1) There’s a curse. Writing your friends or loved ones into a story will make them leave you! You think I’m kidding? I wrote a self insert back in high school and ended up losing every friend that appeared in it. Not that I really needed some of those people in my life, but it was still slightly traumatic at the time. Perhaps it’s the fact that the writer is scrutinizing their friends or acquaintances, filtering them through the writer’s perception and creating a mirror for those people to see “So this is what people think when I do that thing?” It’s a little embarrassing to realize that “That thing I was always shy about is actually what people admire me for?” But regardless, I do not recommend including people you like in your books, regardless of what you write. Or at least if you do want to include people you like in your books, hide your sources better. After all, creativity is just a bunch of combining of other people’s thoughts and hiding where you stole it from.

2) I have enough voices in my head as it is.

I always take it as a challenge to come up with characters that are unlike me as often as possible even though they are all in a way, reflections of me. While I know most people think the Zodiac signs and personality traits are BS, if you read the description of Gemini personality, that’s me: a talkative introvert, uncomfortable with deeper emotions but loyal as hell, and most of all flighty and easily distracted, constantly confused by the conflicting emotions and thoughts going on in my head and always moving even when I’m sitting still. In short, Geminis are crazy and really good at hiding it. So when I say I have enough voices in my head, I mean it, and thus I use them for my stories in order to quiet the noise and distract myself from overĀ thinking about that one time I did a thing in 8th grade.

Even though I have lots of ideas for characters, this doesn’t translate into being able to easily write them. The most difficult ones are the ones with intelligence that doesn’t match mine, such as someone incredibly smart or someone generally slow. But the ones I have the most fun with are the bad guys and my protagonists that I put through absolute hell. Being mean to characters gives me great joy, which is another reason why I don’t put my friends into my books. If you were dating me, would you REALLY want to be a protagonist in my story? It would mean losing everything you loved, climbing out of the depths of despair only to be kicked back in by sudden betrayal. Some of the things I put my characters through I wouldn’t wish on my enemies.

In addition to having to think that much about my enemies and figure out their motivations would make me stop hating them and usually if I hate a person its for a very good reason. This would also be why I hate very few people. I’m too good at seeing things from both sides.

However, on to the general topic of making characters and breaking them; I used to have a lot of trouble with putting together good plots for books because I couldn’t bring myself to be mean to my babies. Unfortunately, that’s what you have to do in order to make a good story. There’s really no getting around it. The secret to being able to do it isn’t even because I hate my characters now, either, but because my priorities for why I am writing have changed. When I used to be nice to my characters my reason for writing was because I wanted to entertain myself and escape from my own head by pretending to be someone else for a while. Now, I want to entertain others and over time I’ve discovered that happy characters are boring and conflict is needed in order to create a compelling story that people want to see end well.

The depths to which the characters need to be tortured vary depending on what kind of plot you’re aiming for, but there are several different types of torture you can use ranging from emotional to physical and things in between. I’ve found that emotional is the silent killer and is great for piling on the little things until the character collapses after appearing to be fine for most of the story. Physical is a delicate thing that needs to be handled with an extreme lack of description. Less is More in the case of physical torture, since your reader is a smart individual and doesn’t need to be told in great detail how the drill tore through flesh, slinging blood around the room. Unless you’re going for that kind of gore. But I believe seeing the aftermath is more traumatizing; it lets the reader fill in the blanks and wonder what happened and keeps your story on a slightly more PG-13 rating.

However, even in physical torture, there’s an element of emotional and mental. Your character has to deal with the fact that they were hurt, helpless, and scared. The big strong barbarian isn’t going to take it well that someone managed to keep him tied down long enough to carve their name into his chest with a butter knife. Or your smart tactician is going to have to come to terms with the fact that she didn’t foresee getting captured and couldn’t think her way out of the situation she now finds herself in. Water-boarding is more of a mental torture than physical, though the main component is physically being strapped down and forced to endure water dripping on your forehead. The torture is the helplessness and lack of power to change the situation, which, when you get down to it, is the base cause for trauma, not so much the physically being wounded parts though that too should have a lasting impact on your character, even if you can magically heal him after he’s rescued.

Emotional torture depends upon the character. Anyone can be tied down and forced to endure Seinfeld reruns for days, but truly hurting your characters emotionally requires knowing them inside and out. The cliche is for female characters to be kidnapped and raped as a form of emotional scaring to both the male and female characters involved, but this is so over done that it’s completely lost its meaning – as well as trivializing rape in the real world as little more than a device to advance the boyfriend’s story which is harmful to society in general and weakens your plot in specific. I normally begin by looking at the good things the characters have in their lives and ask what do they rely on to be happy? Take those away. Ruin them so that every time the character looks at it, they’re reminded of what they used to have and how it’s gone now. For example, one of my characters only had two people she loved in her tiny ass end of nowhere town. One of them is conscripted by the king and the other dies during a magical battle and his corpse eaten by a bird-dragon thing in the magic forest. Now, even while she is out on the adventure she always wanted, her father-figure has been ruined, even if she should meet him again due to time travel, she still knows how he died horribly. This image will haunt her every time she looks at him or thinks about what she used to have with him.

The trick is to give your characters well-rounded personalities with handles and triggers and buttons that you can push, pull, and tweak as needed. Say a character is the shy second daughter, the eldest is bossy and always good at everything she does. Logical conclusion is that the second daughter will feel inferior if constantly compared to her perfect elder sister. She might have a secret wild side, or fold in on herself further, berating herself for everything she perceives she has failed at. Outwardly, she might appear to be solid and immovable, great at everything she does because she’s secretly practiced becoming perfect in order to never be seen messing up, but one wrong word or betrayed trust could shatter what little worth she’s managed to convince herself she has and send her on a destructive cycle that puts her into the path of the plot.

There’s a big stink about Mary Sue characters, usually implied as an insult and I think this is destructive to all writers. “Mary Sue” fears cause people to end up writing female characters as weak and inept; little more than plot devices to be captured and raped. Or, they are turned the other direction and a “Strong female character” is created, which usually ends up being a male character they tacked boobs onto. Women of both types exist. Men of both types exist. Trans and non-binary gender people exist. Don’t be afraid to make your characters whatever you want them to be, so long as you never treat them as the “token” anything. They’re the people whose stories are populating the world you’re creating and you should respect them as you would respect yourself. Give them hopes, dreams, aspirations, and goals because the fun part is breaking them and forging them better.

A line that occurred in one of my stories lately was another take on “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Humans are the strongest substance in the world. Iron rusts, steel can be broken, and to mend these things doesn’t make them better for the breaking. Only humans can heal from a wound and become stronger for having been hurt.

So hurt your characters and learn how powerful they can become.