Why You Should Torture Your Characters

Writing good characters can be torture. Or, at least, it should be.

Oh, I don’t mean for the writer. I mean for the character.

One of the biggest problems I see in novice fiction (and, um, many major Hollywood productions) is that the protagonists are never challenged to any real degree. I’ve read stories and seen movies wherein the hero practically waltzes through all the challenges without so much as breaking a fingernail.

Just gonna drop this here…

Good stories, though, lay setback after setback on the protagonist, making his or her ultimate success all the more rewarding to the audience.

“Where doesn’t it hurt?”

But let’s talk about this from the writer’s perspective. Challenging our characters is essential to a good plot. And let’s face it: it’s fun to write our characters into tough situations, to hurt them, to make them bleed and suffer and…

Um… yeah.

It’s easy to get carried away, too.

When I was writing Wish You Were Here, one of my test readers was my first wife. She was the one who first got to read new chapters, to see what new hell I was putting my hero through.

Sometimes, though, she didn’t need to wait to read them. She knew something was up when she’d hear my (easily mistaken for evil) laugh coming from the den, where I was writing.

“Oh, boy,” I heard her drawl from the living room. “What did you do to him now?”

What didn’t I do to him?

Could’ve been a lot of things. I admit I fucked him up pretty good, both physically and emotionally. But I did it not because I was sadistic, but because this was a character who had absolutely no reason to be successful in everything he attempted. Sure, I could have gone easier on him.

But where’s the fun in that?

Posted by vmwales in Characters, Plot, Writing Process

Learn From the Masters

It’s often said that to be a good writer, you not only need to write a lot, but read a lot. You can learn plenty from reading good writing. And this is quite true. But frequently, what you learn is how not to do something.

For example, I recently finished re-reading one of my favorite novels, by one of my favorite authors. In fact, if I had to name one author who most influenced my writing, it would be this guy. I first read the book when I was still in high school and have read it several times, though it’s probably been twenty years since my last reading of it. However, after this experience, I’m hesitant to re-read other old favorites. Because this time, the book really bothered me.

I still admire the work for the ideas it put forth, the impact it had on so very many people (and on society, for that matter), and continue to view it as a remarkable novel. It is rightfully viewed as this author’s masterpiece (though it has never been my absolute favorite of his books). I’m not going to name the author or the book, because I don’t want to see a bunch of emails telling me that I’m an idiot, that it’s a phenomenal book, etc.

The thing is, in the decades since I last read this book, I’ve published four books of my own. I’ve become a better writer during that time, and now, looking at this novel with more experienced eyes, I see lots of problems with it, problems that – were they to come from my own hand – I would find mortifying.

Virtually the entire story, for example, is told via dialogue. There is very little description, very little exposition. This is not uncommon in this author’s work, and because these works influenced my younger self quite a lot, my early writing also had a lot of plot in the dialogue. But that’s not what dialogue is for. Sure, conveying some information pertinent to the plot via dialogue is okay, but it should be limited. In this book, it is anything but.

Another problem very common in this author’s works is that the protagonists are hardly ever seriously challenged. They encounter no major setbacks, and they always seem to be financially well off, so money is never the concern it is for most people. Without challenge, a character can’t grow, nor can the reader feel much suspense. The ultimate impact of the book will be lessened.

Did you not have an editor or what?

Being a writer essentially forces me to look at any story, whether books or movies, from a writer’s perspective. And as this example shows, it often reduces my enjoyment of the stories – even when the works themselves are praised, and by highly regarded writers.

So yes… read a lot and you’ll learn a lot. Just don’t be surprised when what you learn is how not to write.

Posted by vmwales in Characters, Dialogue, Plot, Problems, Writing Process

In Defense of the Origin Story

None of my readers will be surprised to know that I’m a big fan of the superhero genre.

Ya think?

And I’m very pleased that superhero movies have achieved a much higher level of excellence than when I was younger. I really look forward to every new film to be released, especially the first ones. The origin stories.

To my surprise, I’m finding out that quite a lot of people don’t like the “origin” stories. They say that they can’t wait for the origin stories to be done so they can get to the “real” stories. I really don’t get that. There is nothing more important than the origin story.

Why? Because stories are about change. (Yes, I know sometimes they’re about a lack of change, but for the post part, they’re about change. Now hush.) And the origin stories are all about change! They’re dripping with it!

When Christopher Nolan did Batman Begins, I can’t tell you how many people were of the opinion that we didn’t need another Batman origin movie. Anyone who’s at all familiar with Batman knows how he came to be… parents killed by a thug, rich kid grows up to be Batman, etc. Simple.

Except it isn’t simple at all. Christopher Nolan did something that no other Batman movie director had done: he made a movie about Batman, rather than a movie about the villain.

Yes, you get an hour of Bruce Wayne before you get Batman. And that’s awesome.


You can’t watch Batman Begins without coming away with a really good understanding of the character of Batman. You understand the how and the why of the changes to Bruce Wayne, while other movies just glossed over them. Tim Burton’s Batman, for example, was really more of a movie about the Joker.

This genre needs an enema.

Let’s extend this outside the superhero genre. Sequels to movies are ridiculously common, today, despite the fact that sequels rarely live up to the quality or success of the first film. But there’s a good reason why most fail to do so: because in the first film, everything is new and fresh. We’re introduced to the situation, the characters, and often completely new worlds. We’re impressed by the novelty of it all, which is a large part of why we enjoy the story.

With a sequel, that novelty is gone. Sure, new characters and new twists are introduced, but that fresh thrill can’t be recaptured, no matter how good the sequel is. We’re in familiar territory, now, so it’s going to take a lot more to impress us. And that’s not an easy task, sometimes.

I’m aware, of course, that there’s a bit of irony in what I’m saying, since I’m making the Dynamistress story a trilogy. But again, I’m not saying that it’s impossible to have well-done sequels. Just difficult.

Which is why that third book is behind schedule.

And writers have allowed their sequels to get out of control. I can (but won’t) point at several talented authors who need to just stop writing books in their popular series. (And don’t get me started on Hollywood.) The longer a series goes on, the more likely it is to become drained of all the originality that endeared us to it in the first place.

I also believe some works simply should not have sequels whatsoever, especially one produced just for the sake of making money. A sequel should result naturally from the original. And by all means, when the major story arc is done, don’t force another one. Know when to stop. And if that’s after just one story, so be it.

Because that first one, the origin story, is the most important, anyway.

Posted by vmwales in Characters

Fiction Therapy

All artistic endeavors are, in some respect, therapeutic, for the creator as well as the consumer. Teenagers spill their angst-filled words onto paper in the form of poetry. Some people sing the blues. And some writers pull extensively from their own lives, using fiction as their therapy.

I’ve never sung the blues, but I did my share of teenage poetry. And all of my novels have drawn from my life quite a bit. Some of my friends have noted that Dynamistress is, in many ways, a female version of myself, and I’ve never denied this. I deliberately gave her some of my own “issues” that I was struggling with at the time I began the first book. It was an experiment, to see if I could help myself by having “her” work through my own crap. To my surprise, it actually helped me.

Yes, she has her own series, now. No, I don’t know why. Read them all here.

Fiction writers are accustomed to analyzing their characters in order to work out their motivations, to figure out how they pull through. It can be difficult to self-analyze; we can’t look objectively at our own situations. It’s much easier to do this with a fictional character. Even a fictional character drawn heavily from our own lives and problems.

Posted by vmwales in Characters

Finding Characters in the Real World

Writers often struggle with character creation, and they should, since it’s a crucial part of writing fiction. Good characters need to be fully developed, not flat and simple things. Part of this development is to give your characters memorable traits.

There’s a danger, here, though. Novice writers often make characters that are nothing but a collection of traits, with one of them to be the character’s “defining” trait, often exaggerated to the point of being a caricature, not a character.

Yes, that’s really me. I used to have hair.

Still, traits are important, and they should be more than the typical likes and dislikes, verbal tics, and so on. And a great way to find these is to be a people watcher. Study the people around you, not just your friends, but strangers, too. You might end up finding characters in the real world. Or at least parts that you can use to flesh out your characters.

For example, my first girlfriend had a number of odd traits, one of which was particularly curious. After she said something she felt was clever, she would say, “Um…” and pause, smiling, as though waiting for the applause to stop or the laugh track to wind down. It was a bit pretentious and a little annoying. But it was memorable.

Or throw money. Whichever.

On the grosser side of things, when I was quite young, I knew a kid who would surreptitiously stick his pinky up his nose, pull out a stringy ol’ boog, and stuff it in his mouth. We were about six years old at the time, and trust me, that was a long time ago. Yet, that image has never left me. I rather wish it would.

Not posting a pic of that.

Who among us has not had a school teacher who was memorable for things he or she said? I can think of three or four of my own, including a math teacher who would say things like, “Balls on toast, kids!” We did our best not to chuckle, and many of us were just at a loss as to why he’d say that in the first place.

In this case, turkey balls.

None of these examples, of course, are anything more than interesting tid-bits. They aren’t characters, but they certainly can be injected into a growing character to help flesh them out.

Being a good writer means being a good observer. The world around you is chock full of fiction fodder. Take it wherever you find it.

Posted by vmwales in Characters, Inspiration

Characters Based on You

I would imagine that one of the most common questions a writer gets is, “Are any of your characters based on you?” And I imagine most writers will give answers quite similar to mine: “Yes. Almost all of them.” When you consider how complicated any single human being is, it’s not hard to take one aspect of an individual’s personality and use that facet to create any number of characters.

I see bits of myself in each of these guys.

When I was in college, writing The Book That Remains Unpublished, I had four major characters. None of them were much like me, really, but each of them was the result of deliberately taking one part of myself and blowing it up into a complete character.

And in some instances, a writer will make characters often who have a lot of things in common with themselves. How many Maine writers has Stephen King written?

Of course, I realize the questioners really want to know if there’s a character who specifically represents me, i.e., am I a character in any of my books? And the answer to that is yes. For pretty much all of my books.

If you’ve read Wish You Were Here, you know the protagonist is named Vincent. And he is and isn’t me. By that, I mean that he’s representative of who I was at seventeen. But by the end of the book, he’s experienced things I never have, so – while still being essentially the same person – we’re quite different.

In One Nation Under God, there’s a character named Jude who is definitely based on me. Jude is responsible for a website called The Voice of Reason, a secular-centric site that points out the problems with what’s going on in the government and society. This is reflective of a site I ran for many years called The Atheist Attic, which was aimed at pointing out the entanglement of church and state, among other things.

I often joke that Dynamistress is just me in drag. And it’s not that much of a joke, honestly. She’s got an awful lot of my personality traits. Her brother, Dana, is also based on me quite a lot, too.

So this gets us to the question of egotism. In truth, I equivocated for a long time about naming the protagonist of my first book after myself. But as I mentioned in my last blog, the idea for the story came as a result of years of playing Dungeons & Dragons. And after playing a character named Vincent for so many years, it would have been somehow wrong to give him a different name for the book.

So does this make me – or any writer – egotistical? Perhaps it does. I think all writers have a bit of egotism inside them, as do all entertainers and performers. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t put ourselves, or our works, out there.

So if you feel there’s a need to put “yourself” in a story, don’t be afraid to do so. Just make sure there’s a good reason for it.


Posted by vmwales in Characters, Inspiration

Who’s Writing This Stuff?

One of the more interesting things about fiction writing is when your characters assert themselves, taking your story in a direction you didn’t expect. This has happened to me a few times over the years. Most recently, just this past weekend.

It began simply enough. I’d reached a point in the new book (Redemption, the sequel to Reckoning) where my protagonist was dealing with some difficult decisions and relationship issues. And then, as I was considering them, she said, “Dude, look… if I’m dealing with relationship issues right now, don’t you think there’s a pretty big one hanging over my life?”

Two things stand out about this. The first is that I hate it when she calls me “dude.”

Really? Why, man?

The second is that she was right. This particular relationship (an estrangement) had been casting an ugly shadow for most of her life. It was time to revisit it.

So we did. And… it went okay. Not the way I expected to, but… I liked it. The ugly shadow isn’t gone, but it’s not quite as dark as it was.

But then, while waiting for her flight at the airport, she said, “That went well. Let’s do another.” So there came a random meeting at the airport with a couple important people from her college days.

And that one went well, too. And again, in a way I didn’t expect it to go. For that matter, I never expected to revisit this particular shadow again at all.

It’s fine. We’ll come by soon.

Sometimes I wonder who’s writing this stuff.

Of course, I don’t always do what she says. I may change my mind about one or both of these events. Writing is a process, after all. Once you have an idea down, there are revisions, refinements, re-evalutations, and so on.

But when ideas seem to come to you from your characters, rather than your own conscious decision-making… I’ve found it’s usually worth a serious look.


Posted by vmwales in Characters, Plot, Writing Process

He’s a Real Character

This entry is in two related parts.  The first part is in the “cool” category, the second in the “embarrassing” category.

The Cool Part

Back in college at Penn State, I was a regular at Ye Olde College Diner.

Ah, the memories…

It was a fun place to meet people and I would often write there, too.  One day, my roommate Brian and I were there, probably for grilled stickies with ice cream.

Ah, the calories…

Our friend Don, who worked there, came over to our table and introduced us to Michael, one of the managers. He was a nice enough guy. I would get to know him better in the year that followed, but that first meeting left me feeling… familiar.

On our walk back to our apartment, I said to Brian, “I can’t help but think I’ve met Michael before, but I know I haven’t.”  To my surprise, Brian echoed the same sentiment. “I was thinking the same thing!”

Days later, as I was working on my first novel (still in the unpublished list), it struck me.  I turned to Brian and said, “Holy crap… Michael is Steve!”  (Steve being the protagonist of said novel.)  Michael looked just like the physical description I’d written of Steve, right down to the style of beard.  His mannerisms were similar, his age was about the same.  Lots of similarities.

Brian was one of the readers of my work and his reaction, again, was the same.  “He is!

It’s a very strange, but cool, feeling to “meet” one of your characters in real life.  For me, it was confirmation  that I was able to create authentic, believable characters on the page.  The characters of that story were quite real to me.  And that’s where we get to…

The Embarrassing Part

That same year, one of my English classes was taking a trip to New York City.  It was by bus, and I had to catch it at some ridiculous hour of the morning… four a.m., I think.  I was a college student.  Four a.m. was a weekend bedtime, not an hour at which you should be catching a bus.

So I got up in the middle of the night, took my shower and got dressed.  But I had a good bit of time, still, before I had to leave for campus to catch the bus. So I put a record on the stereo and plugged in the headphones, so as not to disturb Brian.  (The album was Tales from Topographic Oceans, by Yes.  Don’t ask me why I remember that, more than 25 years later.)

Ah, the melodies…

As I sat there on the floor, listening to the music with a brain clouded by sleepiness, I began to imagine my trip to NYC. I’d never been there, so I was looking forward to seeing all the famous landmarks, going to Central Park, having some real NY pizza, and best of all, getting to hang out with my friends: Lucy, Lorrie, the above-mentioned Steve…

Yeah, that woke me up. To this day, I remember that feeling of realization and embarrassment, having thought my creations were not just real people, but old friends that I was going to go hang out with.  I don’t know whether to laugh at myself or think I was losing my mind. I don’t often tell this story, since most people who hear it probably would think the latter.

Ah, the maladies…

For any budding authors out there, I do hope you get to meet your characters, someday.  And I won’t think less of you if you think they’re real.

Posted by vmwales in Characters