Sparing your characters pain that’s necessary


Characters you create become like children: you worry about them, you care what happens to them, you’re concerned when they come home late from some unsavory place.

But the hardest thing you do for them is to force them to grow – because without change in at least some of the characters, nothing much is happening, and there is no story worth telling.

Characters grow like all people:

By confronting and dealing with problems.

By coming across situations that force them to think.

By finding themselves in situations where they have to make a decision.

What they don’t tell you is that the writer is responsible for planning and guiding and forcing change.

For building the obstacles that are so hard to overcome.

And for making them almost impossible to survive.

When you start a story

You have a general idea of who your characters are and will become – you create them to tell a particular story.

You ask, ‘What if…?’

And you make up people, based on what you know about humanity in general, and maybe some models in particular.

But even though you realize in general that you will be putting them through Hell, it’s not personal yet.

While writing a story

You flesh out the people who are acting in it, and, to be able to write them, you become them, you let them use your body and your mind to tell their part of the story.

You channel the character.

And then you observe very carefully what they actually do, and put it in the best words you can come up with.

And you come to that old saw, ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you,’ and you do it anyway, you hurt them – and you feel like a cad for doing it, but it has to be done.

Knowing you’re only hurting yourself, and that maybe, for this once, more than in life, it actually does matter. It is necessary to get to where you’re taking them.

And at the end

If you’ve done your job properly.

If every step is motivated.

If every step is not optional.

Your readers will forgive you.

And maybe agree with you: it had to be done.


30 thoughts on “Sparing your characters pain that’s necessary

  1. acflory

    lol – but if you’re a pantster hybrid like me, you put them through the wringer, push them as far as they’ll go, force them to ‘rise above’ blah blah…and at the end you have to decide whether they’ll get the reward they deserve…or the simple resolution the story requires. I hate the idea that every story has to have a happy ending.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      And I have no interest in unhappy endings.

      There is enough despair in the world already – but you go ahead: there are readers for every kind of story.

      My happy-for-now ending has to be earned; that’s my thing.

      Extreme plotters change things as they go along, but the core of the story, the beginning, most of what the characters will have to negotiate, the end, and the WHY, those are worked out in advance for me.

      For me, it helps then to make the journey as hard on the characters and readers as necessary. Like surgery, there is a purpose to the pain.

      Real life isn’t predictable, and has an ultimate end. Meanwhile, there’s fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Chris

        The happy-ending aspect draws a lot of attention, with strong opinions on both sides (as both your comments exemplify).

        In my opinion (which is worth exactly as much as you pay for it), the question authors should ask themselves is not whether the ending should be a happy one or not, but whether it’s narratively inevitable.

        Some narratives require happy endings (can you imagine, say, Indiana Jones films ending with the protagonist’s death?) Other narratives are rendered meaningless by happy endings — think of, say, any Shakespearean tragedy.

        The key is to learn how to recognize what’s best for your own narrative. It takes some experience — and part of it is learning to tell your characters to shut up and let you work 😀


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Excellent point. If you WANT a particular kind of ending, because it’s YOUR book, and that’s the way it’s going to end, you have to MAKE it narratively inevitable – or satisfy no one.

          It’s the other way around with me: by having a very firm grip on the plot, and where I want it to ultimately go, but the requirement that it be inevitable to the reader, the whole hangs together.

          It is very hard to justify endings – too many authors just give up, or ‘cut to the chase’, or have God come down in a helicopter – because they can’t figure out how to end it themselves.

          This is a big problem with movies and TV shows – we watched one a few days ago, and I’m still arguing with the writers in my head because they left things hanging which they set up and never finished, and their ending made little sense. After 8 episodes, I feel the one thing I’ve earned is a resolution that makes sense. It was well done, had the SEEDS of a decent end, and had NOT motivated the one they chose.

          I don’t want to recognize what’s best for my own narrative. I want to exert the control that creates the experience that works.

          But that’s me. And yes, the characters sometimes need to let me have the reins. Because they NEED to grow. Where they start from isn’t going to get them what they need.


      2. acflory

        lol – I don’t necessarily dislike ‘happy’ endings, but I do dislike mandatory ‘happy ever after’ endings, which is why I love ‘love stories’ but won’t read ‘romance’ unless it offers something more than an emotional palliative.

        No, by resolution I mean an ending that makes sense given who the characters turn out to be, and what kind of suffering they have to endure. For example, a woman who was jilted at the alter would have a different resolution to her life than someone who survived a war or rape or something equally /physical/.

        In the first example, a hope-and-trust-restored type romance ending would probably fit. In the second, some kind of justice or forgiveness or peace would make for a good resolution, imho.


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          ‘Jilted at the altar’ just means you picked very badly – and are lucky you didn’t end up married to the jerk. Go away, know yourself better, do a better job next time.

          Ditto for finding out the husband is a jerk later.

          I don’t buy Romance – the stories are so unbelievable. Life – and love – are complicated.

          But we writers choose the stories we write (even when, as with Pride’s Children, they land complete in our lap, vouchsafed to us as the only writer who can do it justice – and that not certain). If you can’t pour your whole heart and soul into the writing, and you’re as slow as I am, just don’t.

          I was as disappointed as many at the end of GWTW and The Thorn Birds – all that angst, and no happiness. Not a story I would enjoy spending time with, or writing.

          So I have my own version of What if? I hope I can do it justice. Because so far I keep rereading what I’ve written, and never want to make changes. Only to finish it. As soon as my brain will let me. Intensely frustrating having the time and not being physically able to write.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. acflory

          lol – yes on the tough love! And I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that your story was a romance novel. It’s a love story, and that makes a world of difference.
          Oddly enough, I liked the ending of both Gone with the Wind /and/ Thorn Birds. Could you really imagine Miss Scarlet suddenly turning into a caring sharing woman? Or a priest leaving the priesthood for a woman and not being wracked with guilt and self hatred?
          That said, I’m not pathologically opposed to a bit of happiness at the end. 😀


        3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I didn’t think you were – I was commenting on your comment!

          In fact, that’s my hardest advertising task: making that distinction. Because the readers are different, mostly, except for the omnivores.

          I used to be one, but even then didn’t read many Romances. Now I’m a picky reader.

          GWTW and TTB had appropriate endings to the rest of their stories. I just wonder about MM, spending ten years on that novel, knowing where it was going.

          I’ve spent 20 so far on PC; I’m glad I know where it’s going, and like that place. And I work extra hard to justify it.

          Liked by 1 person

        4. acflory

          Ah that’s good. I just assumed you knew how much I enjoyed your book. Then I thought maybe you didn’t.

          Yes, the distinction between love story and romance sometimes boils down to intent. If the emotional resolution is the only point of the story then it’s romance, imho. Especially if the ending is obvious from the beginning.

          Love stories however are about relationships, not just between the main characters, but about those around them as well. And they don’t always have a happy ending.

          It’s funny. I really really struggled with the ending of Innerscape. In the end, I compromised: an interlude of happiness stolen from the realities of life. 🙂


        5. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Thanks. I did know – you have been generous with your words.

          Life is short. People are only here for a brief time when they can overlap with each other’s lives. I see no reason not to have SOME happiness, and that is probably the result of a decent childhood, but that shouldn’t be a requirement, as it can’t be guaranteed.

          Innerscape does well – but I can understand struggling. You created a new world – new worlds have new rules.

          Liked by 1 person

        6. acflory

          That’s good. 🙂 Oddly enough, I’m actually a ridiculously contented person. Life didn’t turn out the way I expected, but there’s nothing in it that I’d change. As for Innerscape, yes it does have rules and they allowed me to…bend a little. 😀


        7. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Me, too – I’m an optimist by nature. Which is good, because the air quality around here is horrible enough today that they cancelled swimming in the outdoor pool. And one of the other facilities our management company runs, in Medford, Oregon (next state north) is under evacuation orders.

          Liked by 1 person

        8. acflory

          Gah…I’ve been hearing about the fires in Oregon. They must really be big if the smoke is spreading so far. We have massive bushfires last summer and Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra were choked with smoke one day in three. Nasty, very nasty.


        9. acflory

          Yeah, the toll has been horrific. Heaven knows if we’ll every know exactly how many were lost.

          For me, the most shocking part was seeing holiday makers trapped on the beach by fire and needing to be rescued by the navy.


        10. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          We just had that in California yesterday – 200 people who were camping had to be rescued by military helicopter from the edge of a lake – it was touch and go, and probably due to the determination of the pilots.

          There are fires raging all over California – I would not have chosen this as a weekend to go camping and hiking.

          Two online CFS friends have lost their houses, and two other had to leave their homes instantly. Everything is bone dry, and the higher temperatures (almost 50°C) have strained the electric grid.

          Firefighters must be exhausted.

          Liked by 1 person

        11. acflory

          That’s awful. 😦 I feel so sorry those who have lost their homes. That’s a nightmare we know all too well here. The saddest part is that the gum trees California imported from, I assume Australia, are part of the problem. Gums evolved to burn and once you get a crown fire, the volatile oil in their leaves vaporizes and goes ‘boom’. That said, I don’t think Oregon has gum trees. I guess everything must be tinder dry.
          -sigh- as if you guys didn’t have enough to contend with already.


        12. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          It is common to want to leave the mess behind, and go somewhere pristine to start over – which usually results in the new place being trashed. And a lot of pristine wilderness being destroyed.

          Let’s prove we can improve and take care of where we already live first, eh?

          Liked by 1 person

        13. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Friends lost their houses to the fires here in California; that came close. I can’t imagine what they are going through right now.

          One had her house set up just the way she wanted – I hope the evacuation was prophylactic, and she didn’t lose everything, but it’s going to be smoky and there will be much ash in the BEST of circumstances.

          Liked by 1 person

        14. acflory

          Sadly I know exactly what you mean. The east coast of Australia was hit with the same thing last summer [for us]. So many rural and not so rural communities affected, major cities blanketed in smoke…I’m just praying that this summer coming up won’t be as bad. At some point, some conservative somewhere is going to have to bite the bullet and do something about climate change while we still can.


  2. Chris

    Well said. May I add one little detail I’ve discovered in my own writing, which (something tells me) other authors might have faced too.

    Your characters will try to distract you from doing what needs to be done.

    Just like children, as you mentioned, characters will plead and beg and try to emotionally manipulate you into sparing them. Books sometimes take over, and escape the author’s control. It happens all the time; and it’s a good thing, within reason and in certain contexts. But if you’re not vigilant, a character might try to convince a part of you that “nah, it doesn’t have to be that way”.

    It’s the author’s job then to show no mercy – in the words of (the fictional) Lawrence of Arabia, “No prisoners!”


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I so agree with you. And even if they don’t consciously beg for mercy, those puppy dog eyes will do it. “How can you possibly torture me any more?” is implied.

      The arc I’m involved in now had a ‘it was IN MY GRASP’ moment, but it had to be denied to the character because ‘NOT like that’ had to be my response: the characters lives wouldn’t have been permanently altered because only one of the three was anywhere near a resolution.

      It DOES have to be that way.

      That’s the advantage of the extreme plotter: I know WHY it has to be that way, and it helps resist the appeals to pity.

      I still feel like a heel. Until I’m through the section, and my beta reader has responded exactly as I hoped she would, and she, UNPROMPTED, said ‘NOT like that.’


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      If you don’t test people TO the limit – which means going PAST it – how will you know what they are made of? This is one of the main purposes of fiction, in my mind.

      Otherwise, your story premise remains untested, and you might as well go write little kid books about bodily functions.

      I have had a reviewer write: “Pride’s Children has helped me to look inside myself and see many things I need to see and deal with.” UNprompted. I asked his permission to use his words.



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