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.
How do you like to use and abuse your poor characters? When does such torment go too far?
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Want another booze-soaked, profanity-laden shotgun blast of dubious writing advice?
Try: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY
And: 250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING