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Writers Tips #58: Torture Your Protagonist

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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More articles on characters:

Writers Tip #54: Do You Know Your Characters

My Character is Sick–How to Show (Not Tell) Illness

Writers Tip #53: What Motivates Your Character Provides Conflict

Writers Tip #51: Give Your Characters Their Head

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blog, CSG Master teacher, and a monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculumK-8 keyboard curriculumK-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.


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

  1. Pingback: Writer’s Tip 110: Get to Know Your Character | WordDreams...

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  3. Pingback: Writers Tip #62: It’s Not What Happens to Your Character Readers Care About. It’s Their Reaction That Matters | WordDreams...

  4. Love reading about a character that has really had a tough time and beats the odds, call me sappy I know! I am learning to make my protagonist suffer Jacqui but I can get a little carried away sometimes. Keep this one too.


  5. This is great advice, Jacqui. And it makes me feel better about my husband calling me a murderer for the torture of loss I put my main character through. I’m going to use it as a “someone named Murray says I should do it–so there” moment next time he tries to make me feel bad. 🙂


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