Why Do Authors Hurt Their Characters?

Why do authors make characters suffer? Is it because they don’t like the character? Or because they need for there to be some conflict, or there won’t be a story? Or because the author is a sadistic, evil person who likes to hurt others, so they experiment with characters and pull at readers’ heartstrings while they’re at it?

I don’t think so. Being an author myself, I can honestly say that I don’t hurt characters for the sheer joy of hurting them or the readers who may one day come to know and love them. I don’t hurt characters because I need a plot, although plot necessity often drives the circumstances of their pain.

I can’t say for sure, and I can’t speak for every author ever, but I think most authors hurt characters because they love them, and want the readers to love them, too.

Someone once told me that you can’t care about someone, especially a character, if you never see them vulnerable. You can like them, be friends with them, look up to them, but to truly start to love them you have to see them when they’re hurting, when they’re sad, when there may or may not be anything you can do to help them even when help is what they need the most. That feeling of wanting to help them, that feeling of helplessness, I think that’s when love for a character, and often love for a real person, starts.

Authors build characters from nothing, or from an idea, or from a need to fill a place. When we build them, we are creating their entire lives from scratch or from our own experiences. We put our own thoughts and emotions into them, we put so much effort into making them real. As we do that, suffering or trouble in some form must become part of that person, because if there is no suffering, then you have a shallow, unrealistic character. You have a stereotype, a flat thing that no one likes, not really, not even the creator, the person who should love that character the most.

And when we do a good job, when we have the right amount of trouble and success, of hardship and day-to-day thoughts, then we sit back and look at that character and we love them. And we want others to know how much we put into that character, how much we love them, so we share that character’s pain with the readers. We share the knowledge, the weight, the pain. We share the longing to help, even though we know that this is who this person is, what must happen to them because of who and what we are.

And that is the worst thing for an author. Adding additional suffering. Yes, sometimes it’s fun to come up with new plot twists and new awful situations, but at the same time, we don’t want to hurt that person any more. We want them to be happy. But for that person to be truly happy, they would, of course, have to work for it. Strive for it. Long for it. Suffer for it. And that just makes us love them all the more.

And then there’s death scenes.

Death scenes can be fun to write. Inventing a way of getting rid of a character in a way that suits them and also serves the plot can be a challenge, and I love a challenge. I really do. But the best deaths are the ones that reveal more about the dying character. The ones that tug at your heart to write and the ones that make you cry. The ones that make readers sob, why? The ones that make the whole thing feel complete. Because just like a real person’s life isn’t complete until they have passed away, a character isn’t complete until they die. Until they are in danger. Until they face death in some way. Even if a character doesn’t die in the course of the story, the author – and usually the readers – have seen the character in enough tough places that they can imagine exactly how the person would go. How they would want to go, how they would probably end up going. How they would feel and how they would face the end.

Because we love them, and we know them to the roots of their being. We create them, we grow them, we develop them, we hurt them, we rescue them, we watch them die. Because we love them.

After all, aren’t the ones who hurt you the most and who you hurt the most…aren’t they the people you care the most about?

So hurting characters…it’s an author’s way of showing the reader hey, I care about this person. I see them like this and I love them even more. And I want you to see this so you can care about them, too. See them when they’re vulnerable, when they’re enraged, when they’re happy. See their lives, their personality. Get to know them. Fall in love with them. And then mourn them with me.

Because I love them.

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About Emily

I'm Mrs. Kim's daughter, a sophomore in high school right now. I love to read and write. I enjoy working on computers and cars (did you know that an air bubble in your hydraulic brakes can ruin your braking completely? - until a mechanic bleeds it out, anyway). I also love dogs and horses.