Refine Your Prose: All writers are sadists

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Having worked as a freelance and content editor as well as an author, I have both made and seen many common storytelling missteps. I’ll post a blog each week about these issues and ways we authors can avoid them. The first piece of advice:

1. Be a sadist

Your characters are not your friends.

This is a difficult truth to accept. You care for your characters. You put hours into crafting their backstories and creating the world in which they live. You live, eat and breathe with them. When you put your tablet or computer away for the night, you feel like you’re neglecting your characters until you open your story to write again.

And your job is to make sure those characters hate your guts.

Think about some of the great characters in literary history and what they faced in their lives. Sherlock Holmes. Anna Karenina. Hamlet. Edmond Dantes. Jay Gatsby. All of them end their literary stories with wildly different levels of success, but the one thing they have in common is that their journeys are full of plenty of suck. If nothing bad ever happened to them, we wouldn’t care about them. I’m sure Holmes would have preferred he not be a drug addicted asshole, or Anna a social exile driven to suicide. But without the misery and tragedy in their lives, we wouldn’t care about them like we do.

You write to deliver your readers a great story, and that comes from tearing down the compelling characters you’ve created. Readers thrive on conflict, on their emotional ties to your characters. That requires a lot of collateral damage.  You need to make life suck for your characters at every turn. Otherwise, you’re letting your readers down.

Remember this golden rule: Whenever possible, make things worse for your characters. Much worse. Whether or not you build them back up again at the climax is up to you.

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