Writer’s Log: 1382 Suffer the children

Can you create characters to which your readers feel emotionally attached? What are the tricks to getting someone to care about your main character (or supporting characters)?

This is the heart of good story telling. When you, as a reader, care about someone in the story, you emotionally invest yourself with the character’s plight, their struggle, their failures and their triumph. You, yourself, become vested with the outcome of the story. And this is key. But what is the primary hook that a writer can sink into your hand, into your eyes, your heart that will force you, unwittingly, to surrender part of yourself to the story? I think that singular force is…



Oppression. Mistreatment. Torment. Misery.

A writer must hurt their characters. Beat them physically and emotionally. Flail them with mishap and misfortune. Perhaps the character foolishly blundered into a vile nest of thieves, snakes, or stockbrokers. Maybe the character is broken, flawed in some way that allows such turmoil and calamity to befall them. Or perhaps, for no fault of their own, they are put upon by forces beyond their control, or powers tenuously linked to their past.

Regardless, they must SUFFER!

And through suffering, we will draw closer, empathizing with them as they seek to overcome the hardship that has befallen them. And they must overcome it. As they rise up, building and discovering their inner strength, we too, will follow along as they surmount all obstacles, slay all dragons, unite all tribes.

When they survive, they will do so with a moral compass that we can appreciate and relate to. They will choose the high road, but not always. Misled they will wallow until their own conviction and vision sees them through.


I’m always looking for simple rules that I can apply to my writing. Triggers. This, I think, might be one those rules: Be mean to your characters. Hopefully they will surprise you with their response. And by so doing, they will earn your respect, adulation and maybe, if you’re lucky, a few tears.

We naturally gravitate toward those who persevere under adverse conditions. Perhaps we see ourselves and hope that we too would react and rise above. There’s a sense of justice served when someone who has suffered under the system or nature, exceeds expectations and prevails. I suppose, if the story’s ethics are challenged and our character upholds them we may feel indebted to them.

If someone stands up for us. If they deflect criticism or shame or give us an honest  compliment. If they were to save us from injury or save our lives. If they grant us a gift of any kind — we become emotionally indebted to them. Were that person to come under attack I would think we might feel compelled to protect or avenge them. We would care about them. I wonder, if by creating characters to whom we feel, in some way, indebted, this might make us, as readers, care about them, and perhaps, in the process, care even more about ourselves (and each other). [Thanks Duke!]

(An aside. This last part reminds me of a book by Maurice Sendak, Pierre. The boy of the story repeats over and over “I don’t care.” Perhaps, however we, as writers, incentivize our readers to “care”, about something, then we’ve succeeded. Apathy in readers is the ultimate failure.)



13 thoughts on “Writer’s Log: 1382 Suffer the children

  1. You might also add at the end…”even care about ourselves.” This post captures most of what underlies my writing. I can’t shake it. You must understand that for some people it is not a question of style or conscious intent, but rather a way of breathing; to make it from one moment to the next. For some it is the most important and terrible thing they have and they constantly circle back to it when they touch the keyboard. There really is nothing more. Ha. Thanks. Duke

    Liked by 1 person

      1. If by some stroke of luck you get someone to read your story, then an apathetic response is a real downer. But does it have anything to do with the quality or value of your work? I would say sometimes it doesn’t. Just look at all the great books rejected countless times by publishers. So there are two things at work: the capability of the reader to get it and just plain old lousy writing. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. Just ask the people who turned down the publication of Moby Dick and Catcher in the Rye numerous times. And how in the hell does Fifty Shades of Grey get so popular? It is 8th grade writing at best. Publishing and marketing are strange beasts. Writing is the easy part.
        Thanks. Duke

        Liked by 1 person

        1. There’s no accounting for taste. Which, for novels, is evident in buckets full. The only person who has read my manuscripts, end-to-end, is my copy editor. That whole “you can’t please everyone” is more like “you can’t please even one.” But, I see continual progress. And my discerning eye has grown hawkish.
          Frankly, I’m somewhat embarrassed to have you read any formal work of mine. But, as Mr. Houston has already become mired in my swamp, I suppose your swimming skills are just as developed; risk of drowning, coughing up brown, fetid water, unlikely.

          Blue Across the Sea (epilogue):

          The Gribble’s Eye

          Shadow Shoals (Gdoc):


  2. Good reflections. Pain and sorrow are feelings that makes us connect for sure. They don’t really need to be too deep and horrible either (though I admit torturing my characters badly quite often ), but indeed present. A story where everybody were jolly happy from beginning to end would probably be quite boring.

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  3. Even Stephen King says he dumps his characters into a situation to see what happens. Sometimes you never use it, but you know more about who they are. I beat up a character pretty good, and got told “enough” by most people at what I thought was about 70%. So like Elvis says, don’t be cruel. Or gruel, depending on genre, to the point of making them punching bags. Getting them out of their comfort zones is often enough. Abusing a character into action is difficult for me, but if it drags the reader into good guy bad guy land and a violent resolution, some days you have to. Kilgore Trout was Vonnegut’s alter ego modeled after the author’s own early career, so Kurt took great joy in abusing him for getting his creator pigeonholed as a sci-fi writer. We don’t all have that luxury of built in dislike.

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    1. Oh, I can drum up a pretty healthy dose of self-hatred.

      It’s the “how to make readers care” notion that I was going for. And the easiest trigger for me to encapsulate is something akin to inverted schadenfreude; rather than laugh as mishap, we reel from it, feeling it in our bones. (Or so I was thinking to explore.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There is also understatement. The tear jerk comes from what is left unsaid, or evoking an emotion from a universal trigger, as you suggest. Just the mention of certain human emotion train wrecks will stagger you. Pain is a big word.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Great point. At the end of Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions”, he suddenly becomes a part of the story as he gets in his car and chases after the battered, beaten and brutalized character of Kilgore Trout because he suddenly feels terrible about how badly he’s mistreated his hapless recurring character. Trout, of course, thought he was being pursued by a madman and ran as fast as he could away from his creator. Incidentally, I’ll be taking in your Shadow Shoals story this weekend. Looking forward to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. At this point, Shadow Shoals is an hour’s read. I wouldn’t want to put you out. It is, after all, a 1st draft (with minor copy edits). I’m always apprehensive when adept reader/writers say they’re going to read some effort of mine…
      That said, if you find yourself, or someone you know who would rather have direct impact (comments, edits), I’d be happy to share the GDoc version. Just putting that out there.

      Liked by 1 person

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