25 Ways To Fuck With Your Characters

As storyteller, you are god. And to be frank, you’re not a particularly nice god — at least, not if you want your story to resonate with readers. A good storyteller is a crass and callous deity who treats the characters under his watchful eye like a series of troubled butt-puppets. From this essential conflict — storyteller versus character — a story is born. (After all, that’s what a plot truly is: a character who strives to get above all the shit the storyteller dumps on his fool head.)

Put differently, as a storyteller it’s your job to be a dick.

It’s your job to fuck endlessly with the characters twisting beneath your thumb.

And here’s 25 ways for you to do just that.

1. Your Proxy: The Antagonist

Gods have avatars, mortal or semi-mortal beings that exist on earth to embody the deity’s agenda. Avatars — be it Krishna, Jesus, or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man — are the quite literal hand of god within the material plane. And so it is that the antagonist is the avatar of the storyteller, at least in terms of fucking with the other characters. A well-written and fully-realized antagonist is your proxy in the storyworld who steps in and is the hand holding the garden trowel that continues to get shoved up the protagonist’s most indelicate orifice. The antagonist stands actively in the way of the protagonist’s deeds and desires.

2. The Mightiest Burden

The audience and the character must know the stakes on the table — “If you don’t win this poker game, your grandmother will lose her beloved pet orangutan, Orange Julius.” But as the storyteller, you can constantly adjust those stakes, turning up the heat, the fumes, the volume until the character’s carrying an Atlas-like burden on his shoulders. The world’s fate suddenly rests in his hands. Character fails at his task and he loses his wife, his family, and all the nuclear missiles in the world will suddenly launch. In unrelated news: Orange Julius is the best name for an orangutan ever. Go ahead. Prove me wrong. Show your work.

3. Never Tell Me The Odds

Impossible odds are a powerful way to fuck with a character. “It’s you versus that whole army of sentient spam-bots, dude. And they’ve got your girlfriend.” It certifies that the task at hand is an epic one, and is the dividing line between hero and zero. Confirming heroism means beating those odds. Confirming mortality means falling to them. Note that a character doesn’t always have to beat the odds. Failure is an option.

4. Torn Between Two Horses

Drop the character smack dab between two diametrically opposed choices. A character is torn between a love for her country and a love for her family. She’s torn between her obsessive devotion to science and her religious upbringing. She’s torn between saving the life of Orange Julius the genetically-modified super-orangutan or giving all the world’s children infinite ice cream. Okay, maybe not that last one. Point is, tie your character to two (or more!) difficult choices, and let those horses run like motherfuckers.

5. Life On The QT, The Down-Low, The No-No-Nuh-Uh

Give the character an untenable secret life: a forbidden romance, a taboo, a transgression. Confirm that the revelation of this secret life will destroy her. “As soon as they find out you’re really an android, Mary, I can no longer protect you.” The character must constantly protect her secret life, must constantly work against revelation. And you as storyteller will constantly threaten that, won’t you? Because you’re evil.

6. Deny Success With Speedbumps, Roadblocks, Snarling Tigers

This one? So easy. Whenever your character reaches for That Thing He Wants (a girl, a cookie, world peace, a leprechaun’s little hat), slap his face. Throw a tiger in his path. Chop off his hand. Thwart his every grope for the brass ring. That said, don’t let your story become torture porn. A character needs smaller iterative successes to match the longer, larger failures. “I didn’t get the leprechaun’s hat, but I got one of his little shoes. We can use it to track him.”

7. Go Down The “Do Not Want” Checklist

You frequently hear that a character is defined in part by what he wants, but you will find it useful to take the opposite tack, too. Take your character. Dangle that poor fucker by the ears. Give him a good look-over and pick, mmm, say, five things he does not want. Outcomes he fears. He doesn’t want his wife to leave him. He doesn’t want to die young. He doesn’t want to have his penis stolen by wizards. Now, your job, as Evil Mastermind Storyteller is to constantly put the character in danger of these outcomes coming true.

8. A Victory That Tastes Of Wormwood

An old classic: “We finally got the leprechaun’s hat! Ha ha, now we’ve the little basta — OH MY GOD THE HAT IS FILLED WITH BEES.” Die Hard has exquisite false victories. John McClane succeeds in calling the authorities and ultimately ends up causing a bigger shitstorm as a result.

9. Storyteller As Robber Fly

Everybody has something they love. Identify those things. Then take one away. Or more than one! “Sorry, dear character, in the fire you lost your house, your husband, and your mystical manrikigusari given to you by your immortal sensei.” You have a choice, here, of paths, a divergence of “lost now” and “lost forever.” Lost now intimates the story can continue, and in fact, the reclamation of lost things is a story unto itself. Lost forever moves the conflict inward, where a character must learn to deal with that loss.

10. Tickle Them With A Ticking Clock

If you ever wish to squeeze my heart and cause my blood pressure to build so that my brain is smothered by swollen arteries, give me a ticking clock time limit in a video game. Freaks me out. Do that to your character. Throw him, his goals, his story, between the turning gears of a ticking clock. “You have one week to save Orange Julius from the leprechaun cult. After that? He becomes one of them.”

11. Beat The Donkey Piss Out Of Them

Again we call upon John McClane, who ends up basically sticking a gun to his back in his own blood at the end of Die Hard. A simple way of dicking with your character is to hurt them. Again. And again.

12. Shot Through The Heart, And You’re To Blame

That being said, a broken jaw, shattered foot, or stapled labia has nothing on the betrayal by a loved one. Maybe it comes down to a simple, “I’m leaving you in this, the moment you need me most,” or maybe it’s, “For your own good, I’ve alerted the police. They’re on their way. I’m so sorry. Now hand me the orangutan.” However it shakes out, the treachery of a loved one is a deeply twisting knife.

13. Shattering Lives With Your Story Hammer

Think about all the pieces of the puzzle that add up to a picture of “you.” Now, do the same for your character. Imagine all those identifiers: lover, father, friend, sheriff, amateur chef, jazz fiend, leprechaun hunter. Now, break the puzzle apart. Throw away most of the pieces. Calamity and cataclysm rob the character of his fundamental identifiers. Force him to question who he even is anymore. What impels him forward? How does he rebuild? What is rebuilt?

14. Shatter Their Preconceived Notions

A deeper, more internal version of the last: take what the character thinks she knows — maybe about her family, her government, her childhood — and throw that paradigm out on its buttbone. The character’s comprehension of events and elements has been all wrong. And not in a good way. The character must respond. Must act. Can’t just go on living like everything’s the same.

15. Motherfucking Love Triangle

The love triangle. Never a more hackneyed, overwrought device — but, just the same, a device that works like a charm if invoked with skill and nuance. Becky loves Rodrigo and has since they were young. But Orange Julius vies for her attention and Rodrigo is off fighting the Spam-Bots in the Twitter War of 2015. And Orange Julius is one sexy orangutan. Who does she choose? Swoon! You needn’t stop at three participants. What about a love rhombus, aka the “lovetangle?” Point is, this is a more specific version of forcing the character into a difficult choice. Do it right and the audience will be right there with you, wearing their shirts, TEAM RODRIGO or TEAM SEXY ORANGUTAN. Gang wars in the streets.

16. The Scorpion Sting Of Deception

Lies form slippery ground, and by forcing the character to lie — or hear and believe another’s lies — you put that character on treacherous ground. We know their lies run the risk of exposure, and we know that a lie is rarely alone — they’re like cockroaches, you hear one, you know a whole wall full of them waits behind the paint. Further, if forced to believe another’s lies, the character begins to make decisions based on bad info.

17. Just A Simple Misunderstanding

Speaking of bad info, the “misunderstanding” has been the backbone of the American sitcom for decades, and it’s a trick you can use. “You said Blorp but I thought you said Glurp and now Zorg is coming to dinner! Oh noes! Hilarious awkward calamity ensues!” Note here the power of dramatic irony, which is when the audience knows the score but the character fails to possess such critical information. We know that the character is going to accidentally give her grandmother a set of small-to-large butt-plugs (for proper teaching of sphincter-stretching) when really she thinks it’s a collection of Sandra Bullock DVDs. Ha ha ha! Oh, a funny thing happened on the way to the dildo shop! Comedy gold.

18. When Two Goals Meet In The Rye With Swords Drawn

Put a character at cross-purposes. Two goals cannot easily be achieved together. The character is supposed to have a date night with his wife and save the world from the leprechaun terrorists? Egads! But how?

19. Dear Character, You Have Made A Terrible Decision

The audience feels sympathy and shame for character mistakes because our mind-wires are crossed. We see a character fuck up and some little part of our brain makes us feel like it’s us fucking up — we associate so closely with characters, we unknowingly get all up in their guts and self-identify. So, characters who make mistakes — or even better, willfully choose a bad path — can make your audience squirm in their seats.

20. Love At The End Of A Knife

Putting loved ones in danger is a powerful way to fuck with your characters. “Sorry, Bob — the Latvians have Betty, and if my intel is right, they’ve got a pit full of ravenous honey badgers to convince her to talk.” And of course, saving that loved one is never easy. Danger lurks. Hard choices await. And even after rescue, can Betty ever again trust that her life with Bob won’t be fraught with honey badger peril?

21. A Grim Game Of “I Never”

A character says, “I never want to become my mother,” but then lo and behold… begins exhibiting the traits of her mother. A cop says, “I’ll never let the job get to me,” and, drum roll please, the job starts getting to him. Everybody has negative identifiers — roles they never want to fill, but roles that have a terrible gravity, a grim inevitability to them. That’s a great way to torque a character’s emotions.

22. Poke The Character’s Weakness With A Pointy Stick

We’ve all got pits and pockmarks in our souls, and characters in fiction doubly so. Flaws and frailties ahoy, and it’s your job as storyteller to exploit those weaknesses. A character might have addictions, anger management problems, a physical debilitation, a soft spot for leprechauns — whatever it is, it’s your job to draw the poison to the surface and let it complicate the story. Because you’re a dick. A super-dick, even.

23. And At Night, The Ice Weasels Come

The environment can be a great antagonist. Sub-zero temperatures! Dangerous mountain pass! Wasp tornado! The setting can come alive to bring great misery to good characters.

24. Roosting Chickens With Razor Beaks

I don’t know why chickens “coming home to roost” is a metaphor for the past returning to haunt a character. I mean, chickens are about as non-threatening as they come. What about owls? Or falcons? Hell, forget birds. The saying should be, “Wait till those ninjas come home to roost.” But I digress. Point is, a character may be running from his past. Just as he thinks he’s escaped it, the past catches up with him — a crazy ex-girlfriend, an ex-partner looking for a last big score, a rogue Terminator. Though, I guess in the case of a Terminator, that’s more the future catching up with you. Whatever. Shut up. Don’t judge me.

25. Opportunistic Hate Crimes Against Beloved Characters

In the end what it comes down to is a willingness by you, the storyteller, to throw your characters under countless speeding buses. You may, like a parent with a child, want to be the character’s friend — you like the character, you want them to succeed, and that’s all well and good. But story is born of conflict and conflict is born of characters in trouble. That’s not to say you need to cause them ceaseless miseries — again, we’re not looking for torture porn. But you have to be willing to put the irons to their feet a character’s success is only keenly felt and roundly celebrated when first he had to go through hell to get there.

Your Turn

How do you like to use and abuse your poor characters? When does such torment go too far?

* * *

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119 comments

  • This is a great list! Especially for brainstorming structure–something I find myself spending the most time on. I love the simple twist of fate one–so innocent and insignificant yet it has so much potential to mess a character up!

  • I was stuck Friday night for the ending to a chapter, I love to leave my reader hanging, so I shot my character twice in the chest. Never realized how good it would feel to shoot someone.
    Great list, thanks and it will help.

  • Bonus points if you’ve been hurt by people in real life and then find ways of writing about them and how stupid/evil they are in your stories, but obfuscating characters enough that even they can’t tell that they are the ones in your book. You’ll be the only one who truly knows the secret of who is who (also, fantastic way to not actually kill people, but feel like you have at the same time.) Priceless.

  • I work in a zoo, and it’s a little-known fact that orangutans are actually descended from leprechauns. They still share common traits. Both are ridiculously difficult to spell and neither is actually very good at granting wishes. Weird.

    I read these points with my protagonists (yes, 2. I have 2 WIP. I get lonely and write around) in mind. I’m heading in the right direction with one of them. The other needs more cowbell.

  • Oh man. I thought I was a huge jerk for murdering and maiming characters here and there, but apparently its OK to be a jerk? Sweet. I think my poor hero is in for serious hardships in the near future.

  • I really needed to read this. For years I’ve tried to find a way around these techniques, sometimes skirting the edge of rationalizing that a story was not boring due to a lack of these conflicts, but that it was merely out of tune with popular mechanics in storytelling, or not constructed to be escapist fantasy. Which is stupid and infuriating, especially as a part of you consistently nags you for dishonesty.

    Much as I have avoided accepting the necessity of antagonizing my characters, reading this was very cathartic. Thank you for writing it.

  • July 15, 2013 at 1:50 AM // Reply

    This article has taught me that I would read any book you wrote. (Also, I took a drink right before reading “A funny thing happened on the way to the dildo shop!” and it was disastrous.)

  • God, I’m so relieved that I’m not weird for doing terrible things to my characters! And yet, I have always known that I’m not the only one, otherwise, why did I always get such a thrill when the hero (me straight female) got knocked unconscious, made blind or lost their memories in tv programmes and films. It must be fairly universal. So now, I can confidently carry on tormenting my characters and know that it’s a writerly thing to do. Thank you :)

  • I agree with Shadow Clasper above. I have had trouble building conflict in my stories, but its like your article has given me license to do just that, to un-sanitize my stories and beat the crap out of some of my characters. I feel so much better now … Thank you!

  • Thank you so much for writing this! I felt like such a jerk for the hell I put my characters through, but now I see it’s okay to plop severed heads on doorsteps, have enthusiastic coworkers snuggle up to protagonists in their sleep, burn down houses, have the wrong sibling kidnapped and shot, allow women to run out of chocolate during severe hormonal episodes, have imbecilic cops forget about hostage crises and watch Mean Girls together, obese nudists running wild, etc.
    On second though, obese nudists running wild is never okay. Maybe I should tone it down a bit…

  • An oldie does not necessarily mean a goodie. Most of these plot turns are as old as the hills and even master writers have difficulty using them without making them as blindingly obvious as a black guy at a Klan meeting. I had trouble finding anything on that list that didn’t have 100 or more examples in media already and even in fairly recent media.

    Why not actively defy some of these? Like the love triangle, why can she not choose BOTH Julius and Rodrigo and have two lovers who, through their love of her, learn to coexist. A bit slapdash but how many stories can you cite that do something like that versus one of the oldest and most played out plot ideas in literary history?

    • I was actually thinking along the same line. Defy the fucking odds, go against everything one would normally read, like everything is going well for the character and almost everything is going bad for the person he hates, then bitch slap, you mess with him. I like to read new things, not something that’s in every novel or movie. Not that i didn’t like your article, cause it was awesome.

  • I am so glad I’m not the only one who enjoys the unnecessary (and super necessary) torment of the people I have long, hard birth to.

  • I do some of these things to my characters all the time. I am very big on taking things away from them that they love. I have also hurt them in a lot of different ways…it really works. Thanks for the other ideas they will help a lot. :)

  • November 6, 2013 at 4:16 PM // Reply

    Number six had me laughing, mainly because I did take a character’s hand off just last night – it’s always the right route to go. Always.

  • January 17, 2014 at 9:25 AM // Reply

    It goes too far, when your characters start looking pathetic. The number one rule, when torturing them is to make them strong enough to keep going – this is what makes them role models.

  • I don’t like beating up my characters, and I don’t like reading stories where characters are beaten up. It’s contrived and kind of silly and really doesn’t have much to do with the life most of us lead and the problems we deal with. Changes occur internally. Get good at describing perceptrions and you don’t need this Grand Guignol stuff.

  • I think sticking my characters in a zombie apocalypse is probably torture enough. Especially when my main character is going to be alone, for the first few chapters after having to take out his family.(little sister included absolutely heart-wrenching scene there) It kinda goes to far when you make them look like a wuss. I mean your characters are suppose to look like survivors not downtrodden, beaten down broken souls with nothing left to live for. Sure they can have points in the story where they feel all is lost but something has to bring them back. It can’t last. (Unless they’re a minor character that you’re gonna kill off anyway.)

  • March 15, 2014 at 10:44 AM // Reply

    Stapling a labia together sounds painful. Fortunately I’ve only ever stapled my fingers together! What a fab read this article was. Keep up the great work, keep on tormenting those characters!

  • As I was reading this, I realized that I’ve already planned roughly half of these tortures for a single character, unknowingly.
    This shouldn’t make me so gleeful, should it?

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