One of the most difficult lessons for any author to learn is to not be afraid to harm their characters. Whether it takes weeks, months, or even years to create the stories which eager readers often finish in a matter of days, characters often have the ability to come to life upon the page. For an author who has journeyed with characters through their creation, development, triumphs and failures, the thought of harming the characters is never easy.
I once listened to an author state that she had made a deal with her characters that she would stop harming any sub-character who the protagonist loved. The problem, of course, was that a few novels in the series later, her protagonist had decided to love just about everyone. The books, which were once a blend between a mystery and horror of a noir flavour, suddenly transformed into a safe novel, where the readers know for a fact that every major character will survive. The novels lost their edge, that uncertainty that is created when one knows that no one is safe, not even the leading protagonist.
One writer who has successfully mastered this idea, without a doubt, is the author of the A Song of Fire and Ice series, George R.R. Martin. Better known by its HBO title, Game of Thrones. This series is full of competing protagonists in a world which seems contain only one unbreakable rule: No one is safe. Martin seamlessly introduces and eliminates characters with each turn of the page. This creates an emotional story-line and an air of uncertainty as readers remain uncertain as to who will be alive from chapter to chapter.
This tension helps to create a successful novel and prevents a given story from becoming predictable, repetitive, safe, and ultimately boring. However, my personal experience shows that it can be extremely difficult act. When I write, I embark on a deep and personal journey with my characters. They become friends, confidants…even family. Feelings of love, hate, frustration and friendship all exist within the various relationships created between myself and my characters. The idea of harming, or even killing, the characters I have come to love as they have allowed me to journey with them is as hard if not harder for me as it is for any reader. Breaking their hearts, their bodies, or taking their lives is an act which never gets easier.
Harming characters creates suspense, conflict and excitement within a story. It creates the most emotional of moments, bringing intensity, uncertainty, and heartache into a given story. Because of this, no matter how hard the act of harming characters becomes, it is still a necessarily part of the writing process for successful progression of a novel. One of the keys to a good story is having characters, whether in a realistic or fantastical setting, seem as realistic as possible to both writer and reader.
In real life, bad things happen even to good people. Ensuring the characters do not always leave a story unscathed is a way to reflect this realism which authors attempt to instill within their fictional worlds upon their characters. The fact that a fictional character endures the same emotional and physical harms that people often find within their own lives, makes that character more real to readers by making it easier to share in their pain, as well as their joys. It is because of this, that writers must so often work to overcome their inhibitions and be willing to harm the same characters that they worked so hard and lovingly to create.
Here’s another article with further thoughts on this topic: