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Writers Tips #58: Torture Your Protagonist

writers tips

Great tips for soon-to-be great writers

When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

Today’s tip comes from Janet Fitch. She suggests you…

Torture Your Protagonist

The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Don’t. This is your protagonist, not your kid.

I wouldn’t use the word ‘torture’, but a protagonist must be thrown into untenable situations. They must lead a life filled with chaos, confusion, and crises  or readers will get bored. We don’t want to spend a couple of weeks with our mundane next-door-neighbor who goes to work, spends an hour every evening at the gym, reads the paper on his iPad and goes to bed. We are drawn to drama–water cooler chat and gossip. Who’s life is falling apart? Who’s boyfriend dumped them? Who’s in trouble?

A novel’s protagonist must be multi-dimensional. We must care about their drama (which might not be the case with the object of gossip). We must root for their ability to solve it. We must wince when it gets worse–as it must to keep the story’s engine churning forward.

But, we must see the protagonist as having the ability to solve each problem they are faced with. Readers don’t want the underdog to lose. We like the white knight on the speeding horse who charges to the rescue. It’s even more satisfying if its the mental ability of the protagonist to solve the crisis despite his own personal flaws and foibles.

So, yes, Janet’s right, but torture is only one of many devices available to you the author to make your story gripping.

What’s your favorite plot device?

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Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-fifth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman.  She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for, and a weekly contributor to Write Anything and Technology in Education. Currently, she’s working on a techno-thriller that should be ready this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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5 thoughts on “Writers Tips #58: Torture Your Protagonist

  1. I love the title of that post and… I must admit I am guilty of using ‘very’ a tad much. Of course, I go back and make amends but hey, that’s what re-writes are for.
    Thanks again for these wonderful tips. I always look forward to getting them 🙂


  2. Hi, I just posted Fitch’s rules today too, but only found 10. And yes “very” is misused so should not be used. Substituting damn is a good way to break the habit. The french use “bien” where we use very. Properly one can say “this very one or this very day” but not “it is very pretty” or rather–don’t need the very with the pretty.



  3. Pingback: Fitch’s 10 Rules for Writers from July 2010 « The Trough

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