Characters Need to Feel the Burn

…whether by real fire, a horrible boss who’s always on his case, or a gallon of coffee in his lap.

One of the lessons I’ve been learning and applying recently in fiction writing is that characters (especially main characters) should suffer in some way, throughout the story. They cannot only have fun as the tale goes through its motions, and they cannot be given everything they want, certainly not at the moment they want it — where’s the drama in ordering a cup of coffee and getting it without incident?

And they can’t always shrug it off when they aren’t getting their way. If nothing is important to them, why would the reader think it important? Protagonists need to be hit where it hurts, because then the reader is more invested in their story. Pain breeds empathy, and the more your reader can connect with your character, the better.

To demonstrate, I will link to a hysterically funny clip from the Robot Chicken Star Wars parody, about Emperor Palpatine’s visit to the second Death Star. All copyrights and such belong to Adult Swim, Robot Chicken, Cartoon Network, etc. Go check it out.

Are you back? All right. That should start to give you a general idea of what happens to characters worth reading about: throughout the story, things keep happening that get in their way. Whether it’s from external conflict or their inner flaws and fears, characters’ journeys should not be easy.

Keep the pressure on your character by having new tortures thrown at them, or else one half of the novel will rivet your eyes to the page, and the other half will drag you, bored, through cold and dull mud. Readers want to read about people triumphing over adversity, not going for a pleasant stroll in the countryside without drama or danger.

Of course, there are many ways to make someone suffer, and different people should encounter adversity in various ways. Depending on the effect and the kind of story you’re telling, your character doesn’t need to be in constant pain or terror. It seems less than honest when the character (and reader) gets no chance at all to breathe and gather their thoughts. It varies, and you might have to trust your instinct a little. Tristan Thorn got to relax, smile, and take in the scenery quite a bit in Stardust, and Buttercup and Westley had many tender moments together in The Princess Bride, with episodes of adventure and peril in between. On the other hand, Arya Stark hardly ever catches a breather from trauma and tragedy in Game of Thrones, and Kvothe in Name of the Wind similarly has a devil of a time navigating a city or a magical academy on his own initiative.

Even if they win in the end, your beloved characters should get a rough ride. Now for the real challenge: to try applying that in my own work….


Game of Thrones – Season 2 premiere review

“The night is dark and full of terrors.”

~Melisandre, priestess of the Lord of Light

Peter Dinklage is back as Tyrion Lannister. He earned that Emmy last year for portraying one of the best characters in all of fantasy literature. It's a delight to have him back.

After that delightfully tense, hard-hitting juggernaut of a first season that left millions of people thirsting for more, HBO began their second season of Game of Thrones tonight. Once again, they demonstrate their dedication to the solid storytelling and almost Shakespearean characters that earned George R.R. Martin’s original novels their acclaim.

[Warning: Spoilers of season one follow]

I won’t summarize the situation or world the novels take place in. I did that last year, and you can read it here if you need a crash course on the setup to this series, which is the finest cinematic fantasy since Peter Jackson immersed us in Middle Earth.

So, the war that Robert Baratheon warned us about is cracking wide open. Robert’s dead, Ned Stark has been beheaded, the Lannisters now seem to have a tight grip on the Iron Throne, and self-professing kings have been popping up like dandelions to challenge their claim to said throne. Whether or not you have read the novel season two is based on (A Clash of Kings), you are in for a real treat. Again, HBO is more than willing to adhere faithfully to the beginning of Martin’s novel, while adding some truly awe-inspiring new scenes. I won’t tell you what happens, but if you see the episode, look for the scene where Queen Cersei and four of her guards meet with Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish in a courtyard. By far, that is the strongest scene in the season premiere, brimming and humming with tension. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.

I will tell you only that the last scene might be hard for some people to watch, if you are very uncomfortable with the portrayal of children’s deaths. Otherwise, I’m not going to spoil anything more for you. If you haven’t caught the Game of Thrones bug yet, then what the heck are you doing reading my blog? Go get your hands on the DVDs and watch the first season. Now. Then catch up with the expertly crafted, high-quality premiere I just experienced.

Tonight, HBO has kicked the door back open to the treacherous world of Westeros, and what a reintroduction it is.