You can be the sweetest person possible in real life, but if you want to write great fiction, you need to be the opposite. You must be the cruel overlord of your story.

There is one big writing block that can stop many aspiring authors from writing great fiction: being too nice. You can be the sweetest person possible in real life, but if you want to write gripping fiction, you need to be the opposite. You must be the cruel overlord of your story.

The inability to be cruel enough to characters can hold authors back. Conflict is core to good fiction, as we are repeatedly told. Some authors want to fix and smooth. The best want to break and destroy.

Many authors don’t want to live the misery. The best thrive on it.

Many don’t want to invent ways to torture characters. The best revel in it.

Those hell-bent on destruction are the ones to write fiction. So, how to gain these cruel skills? How to ramp up the despair? Understanding the problem is a key step towards a solution. And there is one great fix if this is your problem.

Love your main character

That’s right. The fix to not being cruel enough is to love your characters. Have such respect that you can justify the suffering. Sounds odd, but it works. This isn’t senseless cruelty, but something much deeper.

Give your character something exceptionally good. This is why they are so likeable in the first place: they embody the best of humanity in some way. It’s about writing characters that have something so special in their life-adventure that you can bear seeing them go through it all. It might be the one-in-a-million love affair. It might be being “the anointed one.”

The point is, it evens out. The best love stories come down to one person being able to give all of themselves to another. The anointed ones always have special talents or inherited privileges. It’s a trade-off that readers accept. In fact, they do a lot more than accept: they expect it.

We can tolerate the worst when it comes to someone we are rooting for if we know she has that special quality that could lead her to victory by the end. This is the pleasure of watching a great character develop. She might have these endearing characteristics at the beginning of the story or acquire them by the end. Sometimes your character has them all along, but it takes time to reveal them – to both the reader and the character.

Most importantly, there is a required, overarching leveling agent in great fiction that rakes characters through the muck. Desperate situations work as long as there is a net win. Tragedy can be suffered by readers if the book has a profound message a reader can find meaningful and relate to.

The message can be as simple as “great love exists.” The message just has to be there. There has to be an end point reason for the journey.

This “best making worst” believable and enjoyable is the yin and yang of great fiction.

 

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Dawn Field

About Dawn Field

Dawn Field has written 30 posts in this blog.

Dr. Dawn Field is a book lover interested in what makes great writing. After a 20 year career as a research scientist, her first book, Biocode, was published by Oxford University Press. Now a columnist of The Double Helix, Dr. Field is exploring new writing venues and writing a second book. Based in Virginia, Dr. Field is looking to collaborate with a range of fiction writers as a writing coach, editor, and consultant on the publishing process: fiedawn@gmail.com.

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