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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Twisted Writer or Blocked Writer: How Much Is Enough?

Evil Genius... Is there any other kind?

Evil Genius… Is there any other kind?

My previous post raised questions about hurting fictional characters:

  • Do you question yourself about your willingness to write the scenes where people are going to get hurt?
  • Do you stop short of where the story needs to go because you’re afraid of what others will think of you?
  • How do you know when you’ve gone far enough? Too far?

My thanks to the writers who shared their experiences in the comments and helped me refine my thinking here. (You can find Lucy, Joel and Judy’s full comments here.)

Lucy admitted she had been reluctant to hurt a favorite character. Her co-author caught on to Lucy’s attempts to protect the character by keeping him in a desk job. After pushing herself to send this character into jeopardy, Lucy realized he is now no longer content to stay behind the desk.

It’s a lesson for those of us who hesitate putting our characters in harm’s way. Your characters may be more eager for adventure than you realize. Or than the character himself realizes, as illustrated by Frodo in The Hobbit.

superman needs super villain writer's blockCharacters can only be heroic as the challenges they face. Superman needs super villains.

Lucy’s co-author advised her, “It’s his turn. Show the readers his integrity and loyalty to his friends.”

The only way characters can show loyalty and integrity is to be in situations that test their loyalty and integrity. Your characters will face challenges they can’t immediately meet, struggle to get through those challenges, and fail some tests along the way. This makes their ultimate victory that much sweeter.

Don’t hold your characters back from being all they can be. Your test of valor is whether you are brave enough to let your characters face the tests of their valor.

At the same time, you don’t want to overwhelm your audience. How far is far enough but not too far depends on the audience. Horror readers, for example, expect scenes that would make a romance reader slam the book shut in, well, horror.

Joel Canfield made a conscious decision to not write all the dark stuff he could because sharing his writing with friends who love his writing “means more to me than pulling out all the stops to write what someone I don’t know might want to read.”

On the other hand, Lucy’s intention as a writer of men’s action novels is “to write authentically, to make the reader wince or cringe, but never to the point where they stopped eating lunch or put the book down permanently.”

overwhelm readers writers block canstockphoto4035680 (2)When I was at the AWP Conference, one panelist on the “Women Writing Sex Scenes for Women” discussion observed that the mechanics of sex are pretty much the same. What engages her as a writer and a reader is not descriptions of body parts doing what body parts do, but the consequences the sex act has on the characters.

I think the same is true for violence, whether it’s human-on-human violence (sentient-being-on-sentient-being in sff), society’s violence against humans or nature’s violence. There are variations, of course, in the kind and degree of pain and suffering characters experience, but what’s most significant is how the characters are changed by the experience.

How far is far enough is a question only you, the writer, can answer. Your answers will change depending on the characters, the situations you’ve created, your audience and your own courage. It’s essential you keep asking the question.

Speaking of writer’s courage, I am so intrigued by Judy Westergard’s observation that her readers as the darlings she needs to kill to give herself freedom to write what needs to be written, it will initiate my next post.

I have darlings that need killing, but they’re not my readers… Do you have darlings you need to kill?

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4 Comments on “Twisted Writer or Blocked Writer: How Much Is Enough?”

  1. Lucy August 19, 2015 at 10:26 pm #

    I learned to let go of pet characters/kill darlings after studying other series writers. For me, it’s always tricky deciding which support characters (darlings) should appear in the next book. I don’t kill off characters that I’ve worked to breathe life into, but I’m wary of unnecessary cameo appearances in following books. By about Book Six, that can be quite an entourage for a reader to deal with.

    With all due respect, I’ll use Martha Grimes as an example. She has rarely left a character behind in three decades in her British cozy detective series. Until I caught on to her quirk, I was bewildered by the plethora of “non-contributing characters” from past books muddying the plot.

    What relevance did they have to the current mystery? Was Sir Dave’s appearance a clue or a red herring? No, he was someone’s uncle in Book Six who tottered in to say hello in Book 15. The original three pub-crawlers have multiplied into a mob, and serve no purpose but drunken banter. Grimes’ true gift, poignancy and plot, are lost in the gabbing horde. Instead of tying up the loose ends of the mystery, her conclusions resemble class reunion attendees bidding awkward farewell in a parking lot.

    Whereas Laurence Shames skillfully moves a few favorite main characters to a Supporting Cast role in his Key West books, while allowing the new folks and their plot to thrive. Any mention of previous characters has a purpose in the plot.

    Grimes also ignores the series question: “Do I re-describe this person once again, or assume the reader has no life and recalls everything about them from Book Two?” She just throws a name out, and we’re supposed to remember the details. If the character doesn’t rate a description again, then they aren’t very important to the plot, are they?

    The decision to let go of pet people is difficult, but certain types of books are often much better for it. I put my darlings in a filing cabinet, though, not a graveyard.


    • rosannebane August 20, 2015 at 1:43 pm #

      Thanks, Lucy. I agree that too many secondary or tertiary characters can get in the way, particularly as you point out, in mysteries. And I agree that characters can be retired without killing them off. My darlings are rarely entire characters, but more likely to be particular lines from a character or a particular scene I’m trying to hard to squeeze in.


    • Joel D Canfield September 1, 2015 at 12:02 pm #

      Michael Connelly does this, but does it well. His two main characters, Harry Bosch and Micky Haller, have their own series which crisscross a good bit. Other books’ main characters show up here and there in cameos, but only as it serves a story (though of course, seeing Jack McEvoy talk to Harry Bosch is different from “some annoying guy from the Times” would be.)



  1. New Book Update: Back Off Author, Characters Need to Do It Themselves | Bane of Your Resistance - December 9, 2015

    […] while back, I wrote about the resistance that can come from our reluctance to hurt our characters. Now I see that we can worry less about this if we stop manipulating characters and making bad […]


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