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Make Your Characters Suffer

Buried in the Slushpile

Recently my writing partner and I were CLEARLY the main characters in someone’s novel.

First my writing partner came down with a kidney stone. That alone is enough misery to fuel fifty novels.

My ex was in town staying with me, so he stayed with our kid while I went to help my partner and his kid—and see my partner through the agony of passing the stone.

The stone eventually passed, (Huzzah!) only for an ice storm to hit. That caused a tree limb to fall on my partner’s car and the electricity to go out—for 5 days.

Fortunately, my house never lost electricity and the roads were clear enough to semi-safely travel. So, we all bundled up (me, my partner, his kid, their dog) and trekked over to my place to join my kid and ex and our two dogs.

Only to have a second kidney stone make itself known five minutes from my house.

And so on …

That week was terrible to live through. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

But it makes an amazing story.

And as we’re trying to make amazing stories, we have to make our characters suffer just as much as my writing partner and I suffered that week.

We want to put our characters through the wringer so they can come out better on the other side. Challenge leads to growth, and nothing builds a character like suffering in some capacity.

Did my writing partner grow from this experience? Yes. He’s now committed to asking for help sooner—and not wait until he and his kid are stranded in the ER because he can’t drive home.

And even the secondary characters in this drama grew from it. My ex-husband and kid were able to show compassion and grace under stress. Neither excels at sharing their spaces (like me, they are fiercely territorial introverts that struggle with others in their space for long periods of time). And yet all three of us existed harmoniously with the new arrivals without meltdowns or snarky comments. We all came together to help.

And as for me? I got to practice boundaries in action, namely not overextending myself. I helped when I could and made peace with the times I could not. It’s very hard to watch someone in extraordinary pain and not be able to do anything about it. But, it’s not my job to fix another’s pain, merely to support them as they work through it themselves. A valuable lesson indeed.

So, put your character in that painful situation. Make them make tough choices. Hold them accountable for their actions. Force them to grow.

Your story will be the better for it.

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