Tuesday Tip: Don’t Make Your Character a Victim

Tuesday tips is a category of posts here at Writerly Life promises to offer concrete tips for improving or kickstarting your writing. The tips that fall into this category are the sorts that you can do today or even right now.

This week’s tip is all about a particular pitfall that beginning writers can fall into very easily. We want to make our characters likeable; we want to make them heroes who win our readers’ hearts. The temptation, therefore, is to throw a lot of hardships and punishments at those characters. We want to make them suffer, and we want to make them suffer at the hands of clearly bad people. Won’t that immediately make for sympathy and engagement?

Not exactly. The real truth is that readers don’t want to hear about the endless trials and travails of a character who is nothing but a victim. They might feel bad for your character, but they won’t feel engaged; they won’t be interested in what happens next or how your character is going to get out of this one. Instead, they’ll perceive your story as a long chain of whining and bitterness against the rest of the world. Our society treats victims very harshly; we have very little patience for them. And while this should probably change in society, we need to understand this rule when writing fiction.

So today, instead of throwing another injustice at your character from a black-and-white villain, allow your character to become an agent. Give your character something to do or someone to fight. Let him or her change his or her world in some way. We want to see the world being changed; we don’t want to see the same suffering happening over and over. That, incidentally, is a book like Half the Sky or a film like Schindler’s List is successful. These texts have to tackle some of the greatest incidences of suffering in history, but they chose to tell the story from the angle of someone making a small change or fighting the tide of destruction. That’s the only way these stories become palatable. If we only see a crushing wave of victims passing by, we feel bad, but we don’t feel nearly as engaged.