Hurting Your Characters

by , on
January 14, 2019

I saw a meme about this topic this past weekend, which doesn’t really deserve more attention to be shared here. Like a lot of memes it takes a complex issue and boils it down to a very simple-minded ‘gotcha’ statement that’s supposed to be humorous. It dealt with the premise that male authors think that strong female characters have to suffer some sort of trauma to be strong. There’s this pervasive belief in some circles that female characters, or even underrepresented characters in general should be protected from negative experiences in literature. That if a male writer puts his female characters through any sort of traumatic experience that we do it for some nefarious reason, or because we are bad writers.

First and foremost, this is not everyone. I don’t believe it’s even remotely a large portion of the reading community that feels this way, but it is a loud part of the community. They’re the people who won’t bat an eye if thousands of male throw-away characters are killed in a war as part of the story, but touch one hair on a female character’s head and suddenly we have an issue. There are creators and writers that feel this way, so it can influence others. I firmly believe this will kill diversity in stories because many authors will just stop trying. At the end of the day some people just won’t be happy, no matter what you do. For example, the developer of the game Rimworld had several trans folk help write the backstories for trans characters in the game, but even that wasn’t good enough.

So, the point. As a new author myself this leaves me with a lot of conflicting feelings when I see that. I can’t imagine I’m alone in this. I get the sense that, no matter what I do, it won’t be right with some people. It’s a truth we have to accept as creators. No matter what, some people will dislike our work. Some people are even likely to hate it, and take it as far as accusing us of all sorts of social crimes for it. It’s unavoidable, but we can’t let that stop us from doing what we do. We have stories to tell, stories that will work for some people. Learn as best we can to make those stories great for the people that will appreciate them. Don’t get discouraged, and don’t let the loudest few deprive everyone else of good stories.

There are good ways and bad ways to handle trauma with characters. The idea that trauma, suffering, grief, and all sorts of negative experience makes strong characters is based in reality, no matter what some silly meme says. No one gets strong skipping through life without struggling or facing any sort of adversity. Strong people are built by how they handle the hard parts of life. Losing a loved one, being assaulted, terrified for one’s life, being bullied are all aspects of life that will make or break a person. No one is ever reminiscing about the tough time they had binging Netflix on the couch and how it shaped their perspective on life. No real person anyway.

Before we get to the good and the bad, I want to talk about the ugly. The idea that we authors hurt our characters ‘just because’ and that it’s easy for some of us is ridiculous in my opinion. Because I’m a man doesn’t give me some callous perspective on my female characters that makes it easy to put them through hardship. That’s what some people actually think and it’s beyond false. Out of necessity, we learn everything we can about our characters. We find out their dreams, hopes, loves, and hates. We learn what makes they get out of bed in the morning and why they cry at night. We know some of them better than we know ourselves. For most authors our characters become just as real as the people around us. When I know that a hard part is coming up for one of my characters I dread the writing of it. I love writing, but that part of it sucks. We know it has to happen, that we have to do it, and there’s nothing pleasant about it at all. The idea that it’s easy for me to make one of my female characters suffer, because I’m a guy, is insulting really. That’s the ugly part of writing. The knowledge that these people we create, that come from our own hearts and minds, will have to go through terrible things sometimes and we’ll be the ones doing it to them.

The bad ways to handle trauma all boil down to one thing. Pointlessness. Without a doubt, if your stories involve suffering, danger, and hardship you should never have a character that is immune to that. Your reader won’t care about a character if they know they’ll never be in any danger. If all your characters are hurting, scared, or suffering, and you keep one character ‘safe’ the whole time they’ll notice. But, on the flip side it has to mean something. Their pain should not be without meaning. If a character gets hurt it should have an impact on their development and the story. It should lead to their own growth as much as the progression of the plot. If they suffer a serious trauma and it doesn’t affect their personality or development then it was pointless and your readers will notice. Bad things happen to people for no reason, it’s just a fact of life. Fiction must include hardship to feel real to the reader, but it doesn’t make a good story when bad things happen to your characters for no reason.

Handling trauma and suffering well depends entirely on your genre and target audience. You don’t want a graphic description of sexual assault in a young adult novel. When handled well the event will be sympathetic to readers that may have experience with similar trauma. I’m not saying use trigger warnings, unless that’s your thing, but recognize that some readers may have trouble with the scene. Don’t make it unnecessarily long or detailed in its description. Less is definitely more in some cases. Also remember that this will change your character, for good or ill, but it should shape them going forward through the story. Victims of crimes, people who have lost family members, and those who have gone through war are not the same when they come out of it. Their view of the world has changed, as does their view of other people. The type of character you are building will determine what that change is.

Bottom line, the world is a dark place. It has a lot of good but we can’t ignore the bad. It won’t go away if we never explore it in our writing. A book where nothing but good things happen to people isn’t a very interesting book to read. Your readers will expect a realistic world and that will involve, at some point, hurting your characters. As a reader, know that this isn’t easy for us. As a writer, don’t avoid it because some people out there say it shouldn’t happen. We have to be honest to the story, our characters, and up front with the reader. Don’t coddle any of them because it’s difficult or you’ll come off as fake and people sniff out fake from a long way off.