Being Mean to Characters

The world is a cruel place, so it should figure that, as authors, the worlds we create in our books should be just as cruel, right? After all, how often do we get to play God, right? How often do we get to exact some well-deserved retribution we can’t get in real-life, right? Or maneuver the chess pieces until we’ve cornered the queen and declared ‘checkmate’!

Or maybe we want to create the opposite, a utopia where no issues or conflicts exist. No one is mean to each other, not especially the author and the character, and everyone lives happily ever after…

I ponder all this as 13171349-_uy200_I finish reading The Hitman Diaries by Danny King; and while I enjoyed the book, there was a point where I considered putting it down – the main character, Ian Bridges, a hitman, was teetering on the edge of ‘too dark’ for me, a monster who kills without remorse and doesn’t fully accept what he actually is.

But as I read on, I discovered more than anything else he was also a geek.


It’s bad enough Ian was good at something that automatically separated/alienated him from the remainder of humanity – but to also be bad in social situations and with women especially was just Mr. King being mean to his character.

Of course if you continue reading to the end (which I highly recommend you do), there was purpose in the cruelty of his actions (the author’s, not the hitman), for Ian’s issues with the world being mean to him were at the very core of his development.

This is the reason we choose to be mean – and have to suffer meanness – to create conflict. It’s a necessary evil that shapes and molds characters and builds the story. In the same way that conflict shapes and molds us in ‘real life’, building the story that is our lives. Our character is created/developed and how we respond to the world around us is contingent upon what we learn or don’t learn during those moments of cruelty.

Otherwise, our stories – in literature and reality – tend to go the way of the preschooler who just has to tell you something important. It starts off innocently enough – they have to tell you about their day, how they played, and ate, and talked to so-and-so, who had so-and-so and said so-and-so. And then they ate again, and they played again and talked and right about the five minute mark, it dawns on you that you have a front-row seat to The Never-Ending Story, Part II. There is no point being made, no conflict to resolve; just events, strung together with commas and semi-colons.

Now I’m not saying there is some cosmic notion in play that necessitates evil so that we will act right or learn a valuable lesson. The ancient Greek and Roman might argue, given their track record with their gods, but all-in-all, I think it’s something we have to deal with. Conflict exists, cause and effect, and we have to deal with the consequences of actions committed before and after us so we can live our lives.

Which leads us then to authors creating actions (being mean) to create conflict (character) and resolution (storytelling; or life, if you will). And it’s not an easy thing playing God …er, creating conflict, let me tell you:

In my serial story The Pledge, Tamar is humiliated, raped and beaten through two marriages before she’s had enough and decides to take control of her life by dealing with the man she views as the ultimate source of her pain.

In my book Speak Tenderly To Her, I had to be mean to Isobel, who traded a good man for one with a heavy hand and a warped sense of love. Even knowing the ending, it was difficult writing the parts in between, told from her perspective – that she’s messed up her life beyond reconciliation and might never get back the man who truly loves her.

I think the hardest one for me to be mean to was Zoe, the main character’s daughter in Stepmothers Anonymous: Abbey and her family are getting ready to celebrate Zoe’s birthday, when an unexpected visitor not only ruins the day, but also brings a wedge between the family forcing them to choose sides in the ultimate battle between good and evil. Being mean to Zoe and having to write her tears was a minor plot point, but it was the hardest thing I’ve written thus far.

In the end though, just like life, it all works together for the greater good, or a greater story. And if we have the power to be mean, we also have the ability to soothe the wounds and write a happy ending, if one is warranted. I personally like happy endings – I am able to  justify and feel better about all the hell I put my characters through.

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