When bad things happen to good characters

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about causing bad things to happen to good characters.

I am really lucky. I get to do exactly what I want to do, have a lovely wife and soul mate, get to take classes at a great university, and have a nice place to live. I get to travel around and speak at conferences.In short, I am basically living the dream. Of course there are some annoying things, like my decades old struggle with my weight, but beyond that, life is good.

I would make a really boring character.

Personally, I think I am a fascinating character, but I also realize that in a book I would be really, really, really boring. Ok, so we create these lovable, handsome, suave and debonair characters that we want our readers to fall in love with, and then what? Well, my tendency, because I love the character also, is to make everything turn out wonderful. I want the character to have a lovely life.

The cure for boring characters.

How do I add challenges for my character to overcome? Here are some thoughts.

  1. One of the most obvious, is to saddle the character with a problem, such as drugs, alcohol, nightmares from an abusive relationship, or childhood, or some other thing. But I think that by and large, these are pretty much overdone. I would love, for example, to see a detective who has a serious fear of snakes, or spiders, or some other such phobia that afflicts millions of people. How about a detective who is afraid to drive a vehicle (maybe they were in a car crash that killed their parents). To make matters more interesting, they live in a town where there is really sucky public transportation (like 90 percent of the USA).
  2. Have things go wrong. The protagonist knows the antagonist hides vital information in a specific location. The protagonist does the right thing and tries to obtain a search warrant, or tries to convince the police to investigate. All the while the antagonist makes plans to escape – for good. Oh no. What now? The protagonist can break the law, and catch the antagonist with the goods, and hope that things will work out (or shoot the antagonist and hope to get away with it) or whatever. But instead, overcome with an attack of conscience, the antagonist does the right thing. AND, the antagonist escapes. To make matters worse, the protagonist gets into trouble for some minor infraction, and ends up in jail. This is the classic denial AND FURTHER MORE formula. This is especially powerful when the protagonist is really trying to do the right thing, and gets ensnared in the morass of government red tape (think Kafka’s The Castle).
  3. The bargain with the devil. Think about Mister Roberts bargain for crew liberty with the draconian Captain Morton, where the price becomes something of a pound of flesh, and there is no Portia to sweep in and save Antonio.
  4. Back them into the corner. Once a character is completely backed into a corner, and there seems to be no way out, then as a writer I have done my job. The trick, of course, is to figure a way out of an inescapable situation.
  5. Kill the character. Once the character is dead, they cease to be boring. In my novel, I ended up killing a character, that at first I had intended as the love interest for my main character. But, dude, she was boring, so she had to die. I mean, there was no redeeming her. As it turned out, a walk on character, ended up being much more interesting.

If a character is boring, try one of these techniques and see what happens

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