Most of us move through life hoping everything will go well and turn out exactly as we’ve imagined it. Most of us are therefore disappointed. This is even more true for characters in books, because without failure and pain and chaos, there is no story. A book in which everything goes right is exactly one sentence long. That means it’s up to the writer to uniquely torture their characters. In my most recent book, THE VIOLENCE, three generations of women use a pandemic of random violence to escape the cycle of abuse they’ve been stuck in. These three women have to fight everything from a new pandemic to their loved ones to the police to the cashier at a drug store to professional wrestlers. This book was an exercise for me in torturing your characters for the most satisfying and cathartic ending possible. Here’s how to do that.
Make torture part of the premise. When you’re developing the idea for your book, you don’t want to start with a perfect person in a perfect world. You want a character with specific flaws and fears who is uniquely challenged by their world. Pain should be baked right into that backstory. Even if you want to start with a generally happy character and take everything away from them, they should still have flaws and fears you can prey on while melting them down and forging them in a crucible of pain.
Throw thumbtacks in the cake mix. When I wrote my first few books, I wanted the characters to be relatable to literally everyone, which never works. We don’t want mild, smiling cardboard cutouts; we want characters so real and rich and messed up that it’s like we already know them. That means they have to be flawed—and not, “he’s so handsome no one believes he’s a spy”. Real flaws. Deep wounds. Troubled backstory that comes up at the most inconvenient of times. The key is to make them flawed but somehow likeable, meaning that if he’s a gruff jerk, we immediately learn it’s because he lost his entire family in a werewolf attack—and then we see him save a kitten when no one is looking. Maybe giving a character flaws and fears isn’t technically torturing them… but it’s more like throwing thumbtacks into the cake mix. Make it real enough and they’ll torture themselves.
Kick off with failure. I wrote an article for Crimereads called ‘Make the Face Match the Ass’ (https://crimereads.com/delilah-s-dawson-transformataion-in-thrillers/)which focuses on creating symmetry between the beginning and ending of a book. Since your protagonist generally triumphs at the end of the book, it’s nice to give them a symmetrical failure at the beginning. That means that if your character beats the bad guy in a hula hooping competition at the end, we see him suffer a tragic hula hoop-related accident at the beginning of the book. This failure can be as simple as being too shy to talk to a crush or as huge and terrible as Louis allowing his toddler to get run over in Pet Sematary. The bigger the fall, the better the rise.
The obstacle is the way. From the very beginning, make sure that there are all sorts of built-in problems for your character—don’t make it easy for them. You want to keep your reader on the edge of their seat, not knowing what will happen next. If possible, end every chapter on a cliffhanger or a question. If a chapter ends with a character happily falling asleep, it’s easy to put the book down and scroll through Instagram. If the character is falling asleep and hears a noise downstairs when they live alone, the reader may be compelled to keep reading.
When you’re not sure what to do next, think about the worst possible thing that could happen—and make it happen. Unless you’re a very strict outliner, chances are you’ve left some wiggle room for discovery in your first draft. Sometimes, you come up with the perfect idea while driving to work and feel like you’ve been tongue-kissed by the muse. Sometimes you come to a roadblock and your character is basically staring up at you like God in heaven, asking what comes next. That’s the perfect moment to throw a boulder at them. Let tragedy strike. Have them be attacked. Have their ex show up. Hit them with food poisoning. At the very least, throw a terrible, thundering downpour on them. Then they can’t stare up at you anymore.
Find your Jayne Cobb. It can be tempting to create a cast of characters who are all beautiful and perfect and lovely and get along famously, but again, that’s not a story—that’s a Publix commercial. When you add secondary characters, love interests, and acquaintances, build in that friction. Old grievances, moral differences, annoying habits, opposing wants and needs. Give your characters a reason to argue, to fight, to seethe. Sometimes the most interesting parts of the story come from what naturally happens between characters in quiet moments. It never hurts to throw a raging asshole into the mix and see what is extruded on the other side.
Even one small pebble can feel like the end of the world. Sure, a car accident or alien attack brings strife, but don’t forget how quickly the little things add up. If you don’t believe me, just put a pebble in your shoe and leave it there all day. Raccoons stealing food, a sneeze when silence is necessary, a child who won’t stop crying—it all adds up. If your character is on a journey through the forest and time is of the essence, a horse throwing a shoe is the biggest problem in the world. Don’t neglect the small things that become big things.
But don’t forget the big things. So we’ve got little things and people and fears and flaws that can create friction, but there’s so much more! Most characters are at odds with big things, too—the very foundations of the world. Culture, economics, laws, mores, religion. If a character loses their shoes in the swamp, they might not be allowed in the gas station if the guy up front is really serious about No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service. I’ll never forget Louis (yes, another Louis) from Ghostbusters trying every door and window of the upscale restaurant that wouldn’t let him in and then falling prey to the Terror Dog because of a few locked doors and some snooty waiters. When in doubt, put your character in an altercation with some authority and see where they end up.
At the All Is Lost moment, dial the torture up to 11. Right before The Big Fight or whatever you have as a climax, there’s always an All Is Lost moment. That’s when it feels like your character can never possibly win and, well, all is lost. It’s the dark night of the soul, the moment the protagonist wants to give up. Your job is to push this moment as far as you can—mentally, emotionally, physically. You need your backstory, flaws, fears, wounds, discomfort, betrayal, and hopelessness to all come together in one hot, lumpy stew for your protagonist to swallow down and fight past. We really have to believe they can’t win or can’t go on.
All this pain will be valuable to you someday. When you hit the climax of the story, that’s when you take your long list of tortures and show how your protagonist uses what they’ve learned to fight back. Take that pebble out of their shoe and load it into a slingshot. The purpose of all that torture was to mold your protagonist into someone capable of defeating not only the bad guy—but also that poor sap they were at the beginning, the weak wiener with all the worries. The harder you’ve pushed them, the higher they can rise when it’s go time. That’s what makes us stand up and cheer—having watched this character go through hell, keep on crawling, and finally triump, just like we all wish we could do (without having to suffer all the torture, of course).
But if you really want to see how I torture my characters, please pick up a copy of THE VIOLENCE. It’s available in all the usual places as a hardcover, e-book, or audiobook. Chuck liked it, so it must be good, right? [ed: I totally fucking loved this book and from page one you get the sense it’s something special, also here is where I note Delilah, myself, and Kevin Hearne will be going on a short li’l book tour next month: NYC, Rhode Island, Boston-area.]
Also, someone is bludgeoned to death with a bottle of Thousand Island dressing, and that has to count for something.
Delilah S. Dawson is the author of the New York Times bestseller Star Wars: Phasma and Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge: Black Spire, The Violence, Mine, Camp Scare, the Minecraft: Mob Squad series, the Hit series, the Blud series, the Tales of Pell (with Kevin Hearne), and the Shadow series (written as Lila Bowen), as well as the creator-owned comics Ladycastle, Sparrowhawk, and Star Pig, plus comics in the worlds of Firefly, Star Wars, the X-Files, Adventure Time, Rick & Morty, Marvel Action: Spider-Man, Disney Descendants, Labyrinth, and more. Find her online at delilahsdawson.com.