Punish Your Characters, Not The Audience

I like to run my characters — the protagonists especially — through hell and back. I shove their squealing asses into whatever meat grinder, trash compactor or whirring fan-blade I can find. I punch them. Kick them. Knock out their teeth. Cut off their toes. They get loved, and then left. They suffer betrayal. They undergo unpleasant transformations. They’re forced down dark paths.

My love for this particular brand of sadism runs to the characters I watch in other fictions, as well — in fact, I think my delight in a protagonist’s pain first came to life (or at least danced into the light of revelation) with Die Hard. I mean, c’mon. John McClane is put through his paces. By the end he looks like a bloody ragdoll, limp and cackling. It’s awesome.

I don’t know what it is, exactly, about a character’s weakness, about their fictional pain. It might be that we relate to it. It might be the way that we know they’re human, because vulnerability is a perfectly human condition and problem. Could be that this is how we know the storyteller is serious; like any gunman or terrorist, the storyteller isn’t afraid to make good on those threats, goddamnit.

Plus: pain for a protag means we know that the stakes on the table are serious, indeed.

But for a while now I’ve been trying to figure out, where’s the line? I know a line exists. I know you can cross it. I know that the misery a storyteller bestows upon a characters can suddenly go too far, and once it’s gone an inch too far it’s a mile, and once it’s at a mile it’s probably a million. A betrayal is a betrayal, and if you break trust with the audience, it’s a very hard thing to get back.

And that’s the best I can come up with, then: you should punish the characters, but the moment that such punishment bleeds over (bleeds! get it? bleeds? shut it) to the audience, you’re double-fucked. So, punishing John McClane in Die Hard is good because it shows us all those things I mentioned above: he’s real, he’s human, the stakes are on the table, the storyteller is serious, blah blah blah.

But, if, say, we pushed him too far — say, killing Bonnie Bedelia’s Holly Generro character — then his pain suddenly becomes the audience’s pain. His anguish is suddenly arbitrary, without purpose.

That’s not to say the death of another character is automatically that. No, you have to gauge it by the story you’re telling, by all the parts that go into that tale.

I think.

It’s bound somehow to the mood of the piece, to the tenor of the story. The mood — and maybe the themes — are a gauge to tell you how much is too much. In something like Serenity, the death of Wash doesn’t seem earned — yes, it’s pain for him and pain for the other characters, but it’s also pain for us. We’re left pondering his death the same way we’re left to ponder the sudden death of a friend. It’s not pleasant, and it seems unmoored to the story because it (I think) betrays the mood and the theme a little bit.

I’m still getting my hands around this.

Throw your thoughts at me. When is it too much? What are some good examples of the right kind of protagonist pain? And, of course, the sinister, mustachio-twirling side: the bad examples?


  • As long as you plan to give some resolution to the downswing, there is never to much. To me, that’s where the difficulty lies. At some point, putting the character through the wringer get to a point where there is no way out without forcing it out (the dreaded authorial voice). As long as you leave the option for a way out, even subtly, the audience will go for it and root for that way out.

    All to often there is some form of deus ex machina that comes in at the last moment to save the day – that is when I feel it went to far. Let the character sink or swim of their own accord unless you have some damn good reason. John McClane is a perfect example – there is always a way out. It may not be the most preferable way out, but there it is. Strap on a firehose and launch off the building.

  • @Rick:

    Yeah, good thoughts here, to be sure. A way out is helpful (provided that’s in-theme — obviously if you’re telling a story about moral degradation, something along the lines of Requiem For A Dream, the way out should forever be an illusion). And Deus Ex Machina is a bad trick. Characters should escape their punishment of their own accord.

    But, I also wonder if it’s good if characters suffer their punishment due to their own actions. While McClane doesn’t directly cause his own pain, he does so indirectly merely by being the hero — he *can’t* sit idly by, and to save the day he must essentially sacrifice his own well-being (and the bottoms of his feet OW OW OWIE).

    — c.

  • Oh, I am totally with you on that. The important distinction I think is when it is just uncomfortable as to when it is to much. That’s one reason I think Spiderman 2 was such an excellent film. Peter is just getting shit on throughout the movie, but most of it is his own fault – he had a hand in creating Doc Ock. His secret won’t let him get closer to Mary Jane. His guilt over his uncle causes a rift with his Aunt. And he reacts to in a very non-heroic way – he’s depressed, closeted, and sad when he isn’t Spider-Man, and then all of that hurt start pushing into his web sligning time. Raimi just beat the hell out of him, even giving him a bloody-foot moment with the bags hitting him in the head.

    Was it subtle? Some bits were, some weren’t. I love Raimi’s movies for that. Drag me to Hell follows a lot of the same themes in beating up the main character, and Ash was a constant victim of his own dumbasser (Clatto Verata N… Necktie… Neckturn… Nickel… It’s an “N” word, it’s definitely an “N” word! Clatto… Verata… N-[coughs] ). Raimi straddles the comfort line very well, without jumping over it.

    I think the best stories characters are a victim of their environment as much as their own actions. It gives a feeling of being against the world and then makes it personal by the character making it even worse.

    Of course, I’m a big dumb neck shredder.

  • That’s a good question, and one that (I don’t think) has a ready answer. A lot of the answer would be tied to the theme, tone, and even the genre of the story. Let’s face it, a writer can get away with a lot more in horror or crime than they can in romance. And, by extension, adult can do a smidgen more than upper YA, which in turn can go a lot further than books for younger readers.

    When you put all that aside, I think, it all boils down to whether it advances any of the big components of storytelling – plot, character, theme. If it doesn’t fit to deepen or strengthen any of those points then things (violent or not) become strictly gratuitous.

    Whether I lose interest with gratuitous torture of the poor characters goes back to my first point about tone. Going back to Raimi, he can get away with throwing a fistful of seemingly unnecessary trials in his hero’s way (Ash in particular). We’re supposed to laugh and that message is clear. If we take a director/writer like Zombie – he can’t get away with it. His tone is a step too far to the serious. It worked in The Devil’s Rejects because it suited the characters and the story. But the little details in Halloween 2, not so much. Maybe it’s because of the existing work before he came along, but things just didn’t seem right. Like a strange, twisted parallel universe. Or the Hostel – did we really need over an hour of soft-core porn setup?

    That’s another thing – too much setup for plot points. But that’s another topic entirely.

  • The elusive taste of victory is very important to keep the defeat from being overwhelming. One of the brilliant things about Die Hard is that McClane keeps alternating between small victories and punishing defeats. And, each of his victories brought him closer and closer to his ultimate goal. The audience can count down the terrorists with him, watching Gruber’s plans slowly disintegrate. It works because the road to victory is clear, if he can just survive enough punishment. The movie Payback works along a similar exchange, where it’s a question of just how many Pyrrhic victories he can withstand.

  • @Kate – I’m actually going to disagree with you about the adult vs. YA distinction. A lot of YA fiction has the hero go through some really brutal, heart-wrenching stuff. At least, by those standards. Yeah, it’s more along the lines of getting bullied, or getting in trouble at school, or making a fool of yourself in front of lots of people (or just the wrong person). But the hero still gets beaten down, and then makes a brilliant recovery later. Reading it as adults, those situations don’t seem so dark or desperate. After all, we know that the scars of bullying fade, and that eventually you outgrow all these dramas that seem so important at that age. But, to the target audience, they seem just as desperate and devastating as they do to the protagonists.

  • @Lugh – All that is true, to an extent. Perhaps I was being too literal in the way I was talking about torturing a character. It would be easier to lop off the limbs of your adult protagonist than your teen one. It would also be easier to rip the rug completely out from under an adult (kill his dog, take his truck, burn his home, and have his woman leave him from a crowd of sideshow performers) than a kid. With adult things can become a little more high concept. With YA, you’ve got to walk a fine balance. I absolutely won’t question that the trials presented in YA are real for the characters and the audience – I write the stuff.

    Though not all the ringers the character are set through are the expected teen problems. You can get away with the big physical and emotional disasters. It’s the means behind them, the impact, and the recovery time that need to be a little different. You have to keep a little glimmer of hope rather than kick away, otherwise you get too depressing and lose the reader.

  • I’m with Rick Carroll — I’m all for an unhappy ending if the story demands it — you may remember Memory Sticks, of course.

    Or on a level more in tune with the screenwriting thing, Drag Me To Hell — genius, that was.

    Having said that, your point about arbitrary bad stuff happening and hurting the audience too resonates.

    Famously, that one superhero comic from some years back (Green Lantern? The Flash? One of the mid-table premier league ones) where the superhero comes home and finds his girlfriend chopped into pieces and stuffed into the fridge is the classic example of how not to do it, the prime example of what you’re saying.

    Apart from all the other issues it raises.

  • I have to agree on Wash’s death, it just seemed…out of place. I know (I think) what Whedon was going for, but then he betrays even that later in the movie.

    Theme and tone are all definitely important, in darker movies you can get away with a lot more than you can with the lighter ones. You also have to keep from the obvious outs (deus ex machina).

    For me, I think the line of ‘too far’ is when you’ve convinced the audience that there is no hope. If you take it all away, the character has nothing to fight for, no way out, and are just completely defeated you’ve gone too far. Unless of course, that is the end and you want to leave it on that depressing note. The character can think they have no way out/are defeated, but if that is actually the case and the audience knows it, that is where they become uncomfortable.

    That is, at least for me, the problem with some of the ‘shocker’ movies that come out now a days. They don’t know when to stop, and so the torture loses it’s point and just becomes pornography. One second you’re watching a movie, edge of your seat wondering how people are going to get out of this predicament. The next you’re suddenly in a room full of people all watching some sick and twisted thing on the screen and hoping to god that nobody’s hands are straying south for the winter.

    (Apologies for the lewd analogy)

  • With you on the torture porn — it’s just another sort of prurience. I think Mark Kermode described it perfectly when he was talking about some terrible movie a few months ago, where it was like, “This is terrible, awful, degrading… let’s have another look.”

  • On Miranda, when the Serenity crew is talking about how creepy the world is, the camera spins round until it settles on Wash with the line “dead for no reason.” That was the only closure which I felt. It sucked.

    Robin Hob does hero suffering well with Fitz in the Assassin series and Capt. Kennit in the Liveship series. She crosses the line in Soldier’s Son, as it becomes trauma and anguish almost for it’s own sake.


    • @K —

      Man, you’re not kidding. Spot on with Hobb. That’s in part why I dodged the series: her hero just went through too much shit for no notably good reason.

      Pain must be mitigated by success, as @Lugh said earlier.



      Curious to see if anybody’s reading Hobb’s new series.

      — c.

  • @WashLives – Very clever on Joss’ part. Still kinda hate him for it, though.

    @Chuck – “Spare the audience” is the phrase I go by. I try not to kill a character unless it’s absolutely necessary, and never for no reason.

  • A good example: The death of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. It’s a necessary part of Luke’s journey to heroism, something that helps him grow and realize his potential. It hurts him, yes, but he becomes a better character for it.

    A bad example: Trinity in Matrix: Revolutions. Neo was already the Cyber-Messiah or whatever. Killing Trinity was just shedding baggage. He didn’t grow or learn anything from the experience. She didn’t sacrifice herself for him. No great battle was decided as a result. It was just arbitrary at that point.

  • Hobb’s Dragon Keeper/Dragon Haven? One book made two by the publisher. Reading it now, just done the first one. It’s a tasty epilogue to the lingering questions of the Liveships, Fool’s and Assassin’s series. Guest spots by some Liveship favorites.

    I think you’d like it. So far it’s a little lighter than the other books, but it’s just as engaging.


  • This. This is right where I am. My MC is 15 and scared silly, doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. Right now his idea of being proactive is seducing someone so they’ll want to take care of him. He sees nothing unusual in being terrified and nearly powerless, but I keep wondering–how much can the reader take? Will they stick with me until I’ve built him up enough he’ll start taking control?

    I have a habit of avoiding the really bad–I might build up for a whole book and then duck out on the crisis because in life I’m a conflict-avoider, and I’ve been working on that in life and writing both, but this book makes it hard. How much can I kick a helpless 15yo?

  • @KD: You can kick a helpless 15 year old as much as he or she needs to be kicked to become the hero (villain or schmuck) that your book–and your readers–needs he or she to be. Maybe think of it like weight training. You work your MC till he’s sore, and then a little more. Then you let he and the reader rest with some kind of small reward, but use that rest or reward to bring tension or conflict which will propel you to more crisis. See Chuck’s earlier post on raising the stakes in your writing. http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2010/07/19/what-are-the-stakes/

    Last bit: Writing can be a way of facing your stuff, too. If you avoid conflict in your life then try writing it in your books. Create it, help your character face it, then look back on the growth it provided. Maybe you’ll face more outside writing, too.


  • …that’s why I hang out on writer’s blogs. Because sometimes you just have to hear it a different way. Thank you, Keith!

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