Episode 57: Be Mean to Your Characters

On August 24th, Kasie and Rex took on the writer advice: Do Mean Things to Your Characters. Here are the show notes: 

Theme for the day

Be Mean to Your Main Character


  • Who is the MC and why does it matter?
  • Raising the Stakes so your Reader Keeps Reading
  • Mean Things You Can Do To Your MC
  • The Meanest Things We’ve Seen Done
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Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Segment 1

Let’s start with the basic vocabulary of “main character” and break it down so it can forevermore be broke. The main character is not always the protagonist. Let’s float that for a second.

The three basic categories are: main character, protagonist, and hero. They all drive the plot forward in their own way (by making decisions or refusing to make decisions) but they aren’t the same.

The protagonist will go on an emotional journey — he or she wants something and wants it badly enough to sacrifice everything to get it. But the protagonist may be unrelatable or hard to like.

Enter the main character. The main character is the protagonist’s surrogate. The reader can connect with the main character and by seeing the protagonist through the MC’s lens, the reader is more likely to relate to the protagonist. Think Charlie from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, and Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird.

This resource suggests there are 3 types of protagonists and that “hero” is simply a type. We did an extensive treatment of the hero’s journey and I’d have to agree with this assessment. 

  1. The hero is a flawed good guy to whom the reader relates and for whom the reader will cheer. 
  2. The anti-hero is the unlikely good guy whose redemption makes him or her a hero. 
  3. The villain, of course, is the unredeemable bad guy who may get away with it (American Psycho) but we know he or she is ruthless.

Segment 2

Raising the stakes means putting consequences to the protagonist’s actions. It’s about making the choices more difficult and limited.

So how is it done? Here’s a resource to explain but basically, it starts with knowing what your protagonist’s goal is. Each scene should have a goal, too, and knowing the consequence of not attaining that goal is how you judge the stakes.

The “cost of failure” can be a powerful motivator.

Why do we raise the stakes? To create urgency — the character has to act now. To create drama — there are only bad choices. 

Are the stakes personal? Public? 

This resource suggests these five methods:

  • Embed personal stakes into larger consequences
  • Ensure the characters’ choices have consequences
  • Use tension and pacing to control the raise
  • Add a time limit
  • Work on stakes at a scene-by-scene level

Personal stakes can be about achievement, love, family, or existence.

Public or external stakes can be political, business, or survival.

How intentional are you about the stakes in the story? Do you consider them during drafting? Or not until revision?

Segment 3

In NaNoWriMo there’s a day where you’re encouraged to do something mean to your main character. It’s a reminder, mid way through, that to raise the stakes, we have to take away choices.

What are some mean things you can do to your character to raise the stakes? To limit choices? To increase the drama of the story?

Here’s a list:

Physical suffering like sleep deprivation, hunger, illness, addiction, injury, or pregnancy

Incarceration or torture –something from which they cannot escape

Non-physical: financial hardship, losing a job, social misfit or outcast, grief, mental illness, nightmares, fear

You want your character to suffer so that your reader will have empathy for them. Here’s a resource on that. And a list, of course. Give your character the chance to display:

  • A desired trait like love or loyalty
  • A valuable or impressive skill
  • How he or she reacts to being treated unfairly
  • A desire that the reader can recognize as something he or she has wanted, too
  • How he or she reacts to being in danger or when he or she is grieving
  • An opportunity to care for others

What are some of the meanest things you’ve seen done to a character?

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