Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #7: Be Ruthless


Writers love their characters. I mean, they really really love their characters! Some of them daydream about their characters throughout the day. Others hear their characters talking in their heads. And most authors say that they put at least some tiny piece of themselves in every character.

So because writers love their characters so much (and may even view them as an extension of themselves), sometimes they’re a little too nice to them.

I mean, when you love someone, you want to see them happy. You want their lives to turn out beautiful, all wrapped up with a nice tidy bow.

But this is not what novels are about. Nobody wants to read about a life sprinkled with rose petals. In order to write a great novel, you must be willing to beat the crap out of your characters. You have to give them hell. Throw them through the wringer and meet them with a sledgehammer at the other side.

You have to be ruthless.

Here’s how:

Write What You’re Afraid to Write

We’ve all had good and bad experiences that shape who we are. These experiences can cause us to shy away from certain subjects – either because they are so frighteningly foreign or so terrifyingly familiar.

These things can be big or small, serious or light. They are things so far from our plotting radar they don’t even enter our minds as we write, or they might be things we think of but dismiss. “I could never write about that!”

They could be things we’re afraid of: needles, the dark, spiders, clowns, freak accidents.

Or they could be things that just seem too harsh or unfair: the death of a loved one, abuse, divorce, infidelity, a terminal disease.

These things are scary, especially when they’re happening to our character (who, admittedly, as at least a little bit like us). Writing these scary elements or events into our novel can hit a bit too close to home. It can make us uncomfortable. But it can also make for an interesting and complex conflict.

Sometimes our plot needs something that’s hard for us to write. Consider the topics you’re consciously or subconsciously avoiding. Not only are they emotionally charged, but the terror that you feel about them can translate into tense and emotional writing.

Hurt Your Protagonist’s Heart

We’re all pretty nice people who don’t like to trample on anyone’s feelings. But this can make us really bad plotters when we want to coddle and protect our characters from broken hearts. And I don’t mean in a purely romantic sense. Broken hearts can come from all sorts of experiences and relationships.

The very best novels trample all over the hearts of their protagonists. They don’t pull any punches. They don’t wrap their protagonist in a cuddly blanket and push a mug of hot cocoa in their hands. They let the terrible things in the world rip them to shreds.

Never be afraid of breaking your protagonist’s heart. Let them taste their goals and then smash their dreams. Don’t worry, you can always build them back up later.

If you don’t let them go to those dark places, at least for a while, there’s no satisfaction for the reader.

The novel is your character’s journey. Give them a wild ride, not a pleasant trot across flat terrain.

Avoid the Impenetrable Protagonist

For those writing novels with a lot of physical challenges – natural disaster, hard labor, fighting, etc. – don’t shield your protagonist from injury. There’s nothing quite as artificial as a protagonist who runs barefoot through the woods getting chased by a murderer in the hot August sun, yet gets nary a scratch.

Do not wrap your protagonist in bubble wrap! They’re human beings, not androids. If you throw them into a pit, their legs should break. If someone punches them, they should get a black eye.

Overly protecting a protagonist is especially apparent when other characters do get injured. If your protagonist makes it out of every scuffle without so much as a bug bite while everyone else is holding their guts inside their slashed stomach’s, readers are going to call your bluff.

And besides, even if it does come off okay that your character doesn’t get injured, you’re still reducing the obstacles in their path. Make them bleed! Break their bones!  Your readers will love it.

Give Your Antagonist the Advantage

In a fight between a little girl and a sumo wrestler, it’s obvious whose going to win. If the little girl is your protagonist, awesome! If she’s the antagonist, suddenly she’s super-duper lame.

To create a satisfying battle (whether it’s physical, mental, or emotional) between your protagonist and your antagonist, the antagonist must (at least) be an equal match to the protagonist. Ideally, the antagonist should be the stronger, faster, smarter, savvier of the two. Yes, he/she will have a weakness that the protagonist uses to beat them, but in all other areas, they should be equal to or superior to your protagonist.

One way of going easy on your precious characters is to put an antagonistic force in their path that is easy-peasy to defeat. No! Don’t do this! The reader should believe that defeating the antagonist is impossible. If you match your sumo wrestler protagonist with a little girl antagonist (unless she’s evil, possessed, or an android), the battle is going to feel bland, boring, and totally unsatisfying.

Make Your Antagonist Act

Sometimes we get our protagonists into sticky situations where the antagonist clearly has the advantage. For example, the protagonist is tied up, handcuffed, locked in a jail cell, cornered, or battling without a weapon.

Those writers who are being too easy on their characters will often end up with the antagonist in this scene doing nothing! He will circle around the character, say some mean things, maybe swing his weapon around a bit, but will ultimately be foiled because he fails to actually ever do anything.

Don’t let your protagonist win just because the antagonist is an idiot. This might give you an opportunity to avoid hurting your precious main character, but the reader will call you out on it. “Why didn’t the bad guy just stab him? He was right there!”

We’ll be talking about antagonists more soon (*cough* tomorrow). But I want you to get started thinking about the role of the antagonist in putting your character through the wringer.

Homework: Give Your Character Hell

The homework has been a lot more challenging this week, so I wanted to give you a tiny break with something not quite so hard.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the worst thing that could happen to my character emotionally? Have you delivered it? Could you edit the novel to add it in? If not, could you add a tamed down version of it in?
  • Are there any scenes where the character should have been injured but wasn’t? Could you add an injury? Even a minor one?
  • Overall, are the obstacles in your character’s path a bit too easy? Do they create a legitimate challenge and carry a reasonable amount of risk (emotionally or physically)?
  • Is the antagonist as strong or stronger than the main character? Do their encounters/battles legitimately challenge the protagonist?

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

10 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #7: Be Ruthless

  1. Dawne Webber says:

    Great post. It took me awhile (and some comments from crit. partners) to realize I was too easy on my protagonists. I was afraid of backing them into corners that I couldn’t get them out of. I avoided conflict. But that’s the point of any story, so I toughened up and give it to them whenever I can. 😉

  2. Linda Vernon says:

    Again so very helpful Ellen. I realize now I’m being WAY to nice to my characters! I need to learn to love making them upset and miserable! It’s so hard to see for yourself what you’re doing — that’s why your insights are so invaluable!

  3. C. L. Avilez says:

    I’m was smiling from ear to ear while reading this post. The main reason being, even though I LOVE my protagonist, I have been wondering if I should take it easier on her? Every chapter there is some sort of physical or emotional damage being done to her. Frankly I’m surprised that she’s still standing at this point and I still have more plans for her.

    I can’t wait for the lecture about the antagonist tomorrow because he, and his minions, are an area in which I feel I am struggling. Thanks so much for this awesome boot camp!

  4. Eric Yeager says:

    Your blog has been extremely helpful with pinpointing my book’s weaknesses. It’s been wonderful to have the view of an editor. I’ve really taken your lectures to heart.

    Are you planning on speaking about multiple books in a series? If not, I completely understand.

    I can’t thank you enough for doing this!

  5. Rebecca says:

    I once read a book (one of the very popular Robin Hobb fantasy series) in which the protagonist was continuously getting beaten up to a pulp and having the worst of the world heaped upon him. Actually, I found it as a reader rather draining and in the end, predictable. Is there a limit to how hard you hit your character, or how often?

    Second question – if that’s allowed 🙂 – would you temper any of this advice for a middle grade novel? Writing as an adult, I do feel responsibility to shield child readers from too great an anguish, while retaining the conflict. How do you strike the right balance?

  6. Chester Hendrix says:

    Ellen – You’ve been knocking yourself out [out of THE PARK! girlfriend!!] on the effort you’ve put into this project. You’re discovering [as most Drill Sergeants do] that The Good Master always works harder than the recruits… I have no doubt this will be hailed in the near future as An Epic Endeavor in the Halls of Writing Workshops. Deservedly so.

    You asked somewhere for ideas for next week – here’s one.

    *Recruits – submit 250 words of a scene from the middle of your work. You get 25 words [max] to set it up. It can be your best work or your worst work – the other recruits will make suggestions/give reactions.*

    You’ve had us beating ourselves silly with the beginning. It feels consistent to do the middle next week and the end the following week. I have no doubt you have Words of Wisdom straining at the bit to burst out of you in your best Parade Ground Voice to straighten us up All The Way! Give us The Whole Nine Yards, Gunny! 😉

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