Creative Writing Tip: DON’T shelter your characters

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Don’t put a metaphorical hard hat on your characters just because you like them.

Today I’ll be expanding upon the last piece of creative writing advice in my series about “The DON’Ts of the writing.” And this final tip for my fellow wordsmiths is one I’ve found has really helped my writing. Maybe not everyone needs to hear it or feels the same temptations I do when crafting a story, but if you’re anything like me, you should remember:

DON’T give in to the impulse to shelter and protect your characters.

The relationship between author and character is a complex one. In some ways, I’ve likened it to a parent-child relationship. The thing is, since that’s the case, you very well might feel an inclination or a desire to protect your characters. After all, parents go crazy worrying about their kids, wanting the best for them, and trying to keep them from harm, right?

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Here’s the thing: you CAN’T safeguard your characters all the time. You really shouldn’t shield them from:

  • Bad decisions that will cause them pain, if the decision is one the character would make.
  • Physical danger (if that’s a feasible aspect of your plot.)
  • Physical harm (likewise.)
  • Emotional/existential turmoil.

Does this mean you absolutely must crush your characters? Of course not. Unless you’re writing a soap opera, you really don’t need the melodrama too much…. But remember, absolute melodramas where a melodrama shouldn’t be is no better than wooden superhero characters who never suffer and are more of less invincible.

What would Die Hard be without Bruce Willis stepping on all that glass??? Isn’t that what makes John McClain so great?

So don’t shelter your characters to a ridiculous degree. If you’re writing an action/adventure story, chances are there will be injuries suffered. Work with that. Research that: what injuries might legitimately happen if this or that occurred? What degree of pain is involved? What’s treatment entail? What are the effects of the injury and the side-effects of that treatment?

DEALING WITH PAIN

Life involves all kinds of pain, and so, therefore, does fiction. We read fiction and connect with fiction partly because we see our own suffering reflected there.

The thing is, people react to pain in all kinds of different ways.

  • Some withdraw after a blow. Some give up or take the path of least resistance.
  • Some react out of anger and fight back.
  • Some go into denial and pretend the pain’s not there.
  • Some do anything and everything to distract themselves from the painful situation. This could include such behavior as drinking, drugs, gambling, but it doesn’t have to.
  • Some fall apart in a very visible way.

One of the funnest parts of writing, for me, is considering how different characters would react to negative and painful situations…. These are the moments that I find most interesting in fiction, because it’s in the tough moments that we truly define who we are, what we’re made of, and what’s important to us.

So find that line between sheltering your characters and throwing so much bad stuff at them that it just feels unbelievable and forced. The good news is, it can be a really wide line and afford you lots of wiggle room!

So, what are your thoughts? Any characters who really stuck with you because of how they handle the bad moments?

For more writing tips on this topic, check out when bad things happen to good characters.

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13 responses to “Creative Writing Tip: DON’T shelter your characters

  1. I struggle with this one sometimes, and often have to go back and make things more serious for my characters. The extra character development is worth it though.

    • Isn’t it, though? 🙂 I always feel the same. Even when I end up pacing the kitchen for fifteen minutes because I don’t want something to happen in my novel even though I know it needs to!

  2. Great post! I am working on “wrecking my heroine’ right now and it is killing me because I still want people to like her! But advice from Donald Maas is “figure out what your character would never, ever do…then put them in a situation where they have to do that!”. Jennie Marts- author of Another Saturday Night and I Ain’t Got No Body

  3. I used to feel that my scripts weren’t “big” enough. Then I realized I just wasn’t putting my characters through enough conflict and turmoil. Sometimes we have to unleash the nastier sides of ourselves for writing that hits. It can be a very uncomfortable experience, and I appreciate finding support to find my inner meanie 🙂

  4. I had a moment like that. A scene was leading to a horrific end and I was hesistant to follow it but I thought ‘let it happen’. It was a great move; did wonders for the plot.

  5. Pingback: Authors: Three Great Pieces of Life Advices Writers Should Ignore | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  6. Pingback: Creative Writing and Empathy: How Writing Fiction Helps You Connect With Others | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  7. Reblogged this on CJR Writing and commented:
    As I embark on starting the sequel to “On The Border,” this is pretty good advice to follow.

  8. I agree, Victoria, wrapping your main character in cotton wool makes for boring reading. I think the best advice I’ve read so far was to ‘get rid of your wimpy protagonist.’ It made the world of difference to my character!

    • That’s great advice!!! I love your point here: sheltering character does make them wimpy… that not only bores people, it frustrates and annoys them. Not what we want to do to our readers!

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