On being mean to fictional characters.

Death, accidents, suicide, heartaches, disasters… fictional characters have seen it all. A single fictional character may go through all sorts of horrible things in one book, and I think that that’s okay as long as it serves the story. In a recent discussion with my fiancé, I said that I don’t mind hurting my characters if it moves the plot along. After all, it’s just a story. It’s not like I’m harming a real person by the words I write, so I don’t feel bad.

I think it’s important to maintain some emotional detachment from the story and characters. I’ve learned that the hard way. After nearly four years of keeping a book on hold because I liked my characters too much to decide who would win at the end, I think one should think about what’s best for the story, not what’s best for them.

Daniel disagrees. He was surprised that I don’t get emotionally involved with my characters. Now before I go any further, I would like to say that I’m not a mean person, honest! I don’t like seeing people get hurt, and I absolutely hate hearing about the death of someone I know. However, I recognize that my characters are figments of my imagination, so I don’t feel bad if I do something less than pleasant to them.

I never do this… unless the character is not mine.

That’s not to say that I don’t feel anything while I’m writing, but when I do, my feelings are directed towards the story as a whole, not to a specific character. If the plot is misbehaving, I feel frustrated. If the story is moving at a fast pace, I feel exhilarated. If I’m writing a happy or a funny scene, I’m generally in a good mood. When it comes to characters, however, I try to avoid empathizing with them and work towards reaching a satisfying ending. I feel that this makes everything seem more believable and realistic, as I have not let my feelings interfere with the natural course of the story.

However, when it comes to reading other books or watching movies, I’m more than willing to invest my feelings into the characters. If I like a character, I ended up worrying over it, feeling embarrassed for it, getting upset if they are hurt or die… and more often than not I will either cry or have a lump in my throat.

The last time I watched this scene, I cried so much my 7-year-old brother told me I’m being stupid. But it’s just so darn SAD.

How do you feel about your characters and other people’s characters? Do you get emotionally attached, or do you just focus on writing the best story regardless of the consequences? Do you think I’m mean? D=

53 thoughts on “On being mean to fictional characters.

  1. Hey Zen, thanks for sharing. Its interesting you don’t get attached. I get very attached to my characters. Although i will hurt them or kill them if i need to. But as i write the sad scenes i feel like crying and the same with the happy or funny scenes i feel like laughing. I’ve even scared myself whilst writing a scary before!

    Like you though, i am very emotional with films and others characters.

    Guess I’m an emotional person! Haha :-)

    • Seems like there are more people on the opposite camp, haha. I just don’t find I’m able to invest too much emotions in my characters. What I may get sad about, for example, is not being able to give a favourite character more lines because it would be bad for the story!
      And there’s nothing bad with being emotional!

  2. I get very attached to other people’s characters. I do think that empathy with mine goes a long way towards fleshing them out and making the plot make sense in context. I’ve certainly read enough hard science fiction to know that the plot moving along does make up to some extent for characters that are more archetypical than personal. The very best though are characters that I can get attached to because of their feelings about the plot that’s happening around them that aren’t so mired in their own belly buttons (or good looks) that the plot slows down.

    • Well that makes sense. Personally I feel like I can flesh out a character even without getting emotionally involved, but to each their own. =] And I agree with you that characters that get involved with the plot are better than those living in their own personal bubbles.

  3. Here is a direct quote from the writers conference I attended a couple weeks ago. The speaker was Rich Krevolin. “An engaging character actively overcomes TREMENDOUS obstacles to reach a desired goal. As a result, the main character CHANGES, and the change must be for the better.”

    I get the obstacle part, but not all characters change for the better . . .

    • Yeah, I don’t get get the change for the better thing either. Maybe he meant that it’s better in terms of the story? I mean, there are some characters start out quite well and end up in a bad place!

  4. I’m hopeless. I get involved in my own writing and the writing of everyone else, too. I laugh over it, and I cry over it. I feel what my characters are feeling, and sometimes it’s draining. I actually felt *jealousy* once! … And I don’t think you have a mean bone in your body. You are too sweet. :-)

      • In my book set in Vegas, Susan and a hockey player were in the news a few times in what appeared to be compromising positions. Susan picked up the paper one day, and the hockey player was featured with another woman draped around him. Susan wasn’t jealous, but *I* actually felt the feeling of jealousy when I “saw him” with that hussy! :-) I told you – I’m out of control.

  5. Great post! Personally, I think you should get attached in a way… As to make a character believable you need to know everything about them, and through that you get attached. But what some authors need to know is that in order for a story to have affect, it needs conflict, it needs stuff like death to not only keep the story going, but to convey key parts of the story, whether it be the character or a key bit of information.

    • Thanks! Hmmm. Perhaps. But… let’s take therapists, for example. It is recommended that therapists do not get emotionally involved with their patients because it may lead them to make rash decisions, and yet they do get to know their patients really well. Similarly, I think an author can get to know their characters without being attached.

  6. I certainly don’t think you’re mean :)
    I put too much of my emotion into my characters and have a bit of a meltdown when I have to kill them off:( I feel like I’m killing a friend!

  7. I had it early on with my villains, who started out as good people, and went down a bad path because of things I did to them in the story. I felt so sorry for them, it was as if I had been torturing them. Poor souls…

  8. You’re not mean. ROFL. Life isn’t fair and neither are writers. ;)

    Opposite of you though, I don’t think I can emotionally detach myself from my characters. I do not allow my feelings to get the in the way however. If my child cried and carried on because it wasn’t fair that we put it’s dying (unsaveable) pet to sleep, I would sympathize with my child, even cry with him/her but it wouldn’t stop me from putting the pet to sleep. The same goes with characters. I might laugh, get mad, or cry for my characters but if someone needs to be unfairly fired, ran over by a street sweeper or electrocuted, well… I’m a writer. heh.

    I get very wrapped up with stories. Others and my own. *blush*

    • Haha, thanks! And you’re right; as writers we basically give life to our characters. ;)
      I think it’s great that you’re able to do the right thing without getting too involved with your characters. There’s nothing wrong with being emotional as long as you do right by the story!

  9. I guess you balance the little evil puppet master inside of you with the chocolate and out comes a funny, nice person. :)
    I’m very attached to my characters, but I know what you mean – bad things have to happen to them because otherwise you wouldn’t have a story. And you wouldn’t have life. Bad stuff happens. And I don’t feel bad about making them experience life.

    • Haha, well… when you put it that way, it does fit! ;)
      And yes, if your characters are always happy and nothing goes wrong, then you’ve got yourself a boring story. Even kiddie tales always have bad things happening before revealing a satisfying ending!

  10. I’m pretty hopeless when it comes to giving the characters I love a happy ending, but when it comes to bad things happening during the rest of the book all bets are off. Great post!

  11. This is such a good post! I get so annoyed when I’m reading and authors ‘fall in love’ with their characters and become too indulgent… it is such a trap as a writer, I try so hard to be objective, and sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind! I must think about this some more.

  12. As a reader, I get VERY attached. In fact, I feel cheated if I don’t get attached to the characters and care deeply about what happens to them.

    As a writer, I fight very hard to stay at least somewhat detached, so I can do what’s right for the story. It’s not easy. I envy people who have no problem keeping a distance from their characters.

    • I agree with you! If the author doesn’t get me to care about the characters, then I lose interest in the story.
      I guess it comes with practice! I’ve learned not to get too attached. It’s just like I mentioned above in reply to a comment – we’re the therapists and our characters are the patients; in order to help them we have to keep our distance.

  13. I try to put myself into the reader’s shoes and decide if they would mind if a character meets their demise, or if they would be sorely disappointed–it is hard to do away with a favourite character–I am guilty of getting too close to my main characters

    • I do that sometimes! And when in doubt, one could always brainstorm with someone who knows about the story. I know how difficult it can be, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

  14. You raise some very good points Zen. I do not believe that you are a mean person by committing some of your characters to a certain amount of pain.
    When reading the words of another writer, if one becomes enchanted by the general storyline, I think it would be almost impossible not to become emotionally attached to the central protagonists if one wished to remain utterly immersed in the narrative.
    When writing pieces of my own I basically feel the same way; I become immersed in the storyline and the lives of the characters to such an extent that I feel emotionally bereft when something horrible inevitably occurs. When developing more serious pieces, I often find myself killing the partners of major characters. I do realise that this inevitable conclusion, although horrific, is indeed a part of the grand plan that I have been orchestrating up until this moment, but that doesn’t mean that it does not hurt to write a couple pages worth of a lover crying over the body of the person they cherish as they say their final goodbyes before they are forever torn apart. I personally find that this strengthens the overall occurrence, because in this emotional moment, I can develop lines that are representative of how I feel, which can, theoretically/hopefully, further empower the piece.
    So, if you are mean Zen, then I obviously am comparative to Pinhead from Hellraiser.
    Great post, cheers!

    • Well thank you, I’m glad to hear you don’t think I’m mean. :D
      You know, these moments you describe usually really tug at my heart strings when I’m reading them, but not while I’m writing. I worry about falling into cheesy and flowery dialogue, because I sometimes have a tendency to do that. By remaining aloof, I can deliver a good scene that is both realistic and touching.

  15. I’m not sure if I’d call it emotionally invested, but I do feel bad deliberately having bad things happen to my characters. I like for them to end the story happy and healthy if at all possible.

  16. I don’t have problem with killing off villains, but I really hate killing off characters I love–or making them suffer to any degree.

    What if they find a way through the Fourth Wall and seek revenge?

  17. I think you’re so right about the difference between the reader’s attachments and the needs of the story as a whole! Can’t help but think of George R. R.Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire here. So much of the strength of the story came from the fact that it moved along organically, the game of thrones was ruthless so where it would be natural for a character to be killed, sidelined, tortured or married off etc. this happened regardless of their appeal to the reader!

    • Thanks! I haven’t read/watched The Game of Thrones, but my friend has told me that so many of her favourite characters died, but even then she still thinks the story’s awesome and didn’t hate the author for killing people off. It all comes down to execution! =D

  18. Pingback: Jack did not have to die! | Zen Scribbles

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