Go Ahead, Be Mean
You have worked very hard to make your main characters likeable… lovable, even. You’ve developed them into complete human beings in your mind and, hopefully, in your novel as well. But then… you’ve got to be mean to them! You’ve got to destroy their wonderful (or even not quite so wonderful, but getting there) life! How do you do that?
If you’ve been a long-time reader of this blog, you’ll know that I sometimes revel in being mean to my characters. I mean, it’s how I get my frustrations out sometimes. Also, being mean to my characters means that I am not being mean to my children. They recognize this, and appreciate it a great deal!
But sometimes it’s just not easy.
In today’s world where there are so many shootings, attacks, and just all around rudeness (hello Trolls on social media), sometimes it’s just really hard to be unkind to people—even fictional ones. We all need a break from all the violence and cruelty going on in the world.
The thing we authors have to remember is that in order for wonderful things to happen to our characters and for those things to really stand out, bad things must happen to them as well. If only good things happened, we also wouldn’t have a novel, we’d have a syrupy mush of words vaguely but not quite resembling a novel.
All stories must have a conflict. There must be an antagonist (even if it’s only the sweet, little old lady next door who objects to you mowing your lawn on Saturdays because that’s the day she has her bridge club over and the noise bothers her). Bad things must happen to your protagonist—it’s how people learn and grow.
I understand and whole-heartedly support the idea that we all need to be kinder to one another. Sadly, this does not extend to your characters. They need to suffer. They need to have bad things happen to them. They need to go through all the pain and hurt and angst so that they can come out the other side stronger, more resilient, and better people (and don’t forget that ultimate satisfaction when the antagonist gets their own back for being such a horrid person—that sweet, little old lady can damn well go to someone else’s house to play bridge! The protagonist can even drive her there because they are a kind person, after all (okay, that’s not really making the neighbor suffer, but hey, she’s just a little, old lady!)).
Ultimately, while it can be difficult hurting your protagonists who you have grown to love, it is better for them in the end and, speaking of the end, this will make that ending so much more satisfying. So, go ahead, dig down deep (or not so deep, no judgements here!) and dredge up your inner bitch. Be cruel to your characters, make them go through hell and really suffer. You’ll feel better when they triumph over all the adversity you’ve piled on top of them, and so will your readers.