4 Easy Ways to Torture your Characters (And your Readers)
To be honest, a lot of readers want to be tortured. They want you to tear their still-beating hearts from their chests and stomp them on the ground.
You need to give them some happiness too, and it boils down to the same point: they want you to evoke an emotional response in them.
The best novels are emotionally manipulative. They can convince you to like a character, then laugh as that character betrays you. They want you to absolutely despise a character, then slowly build them up until you’re crying when they die.
By the way, The 100 is a GREAT TV show for emotional manipulation. Just when you start hating a character, they’ll become your favorite. Meanwhile, your favorite just lost their senses and did something dumb and selfish, so you hate them now. But don’t worry — a few episodes later, you’ll change your mind on all of them again!
(Seriously, give it a watch — it’s great material for writing analysis!)
4 Ways to Torture Your Characters:
These three plot points are powerful ways to bring about that emotional response, as long as you use them correctly!
Repeat: AS LONG AS YOU USE THEM CORRECTLY.
If you’re not careful, any of these tactics can come across as nothing more than cheap shock factor. Keep the ideas in mind, but only use them if the time feels right. Don’t fall back on it as if it’s an automatic way to make your plot better.
1. End Chapters on Cliffhangers!
Ending each chapter with a bit of a cliffhanger is a great way to keep your readers on their seats.
Instead of ending your chapter just as something ends, end it in the peak of the action. End it when things are still interesting!
One way of doing this is to never give your characters a break. At the end of each chapter, something should go wrong. Sometimes you will need a little bit of an emotional respite, otherwise you’ll fatigue your readers. Let them solve some of their problems, just not all of them at the same time.
If you master this, you can play a certain mind trick on your reader: they won’t be able to put your book down.
When they finish the entire novel in one sitting, they’ll be positive it’s a good book. To them, there’s no other explanation for why they couldn’t put it down.
2. Include a Character Betrayal!
Injustice demands that things be set right. When there’s a vicious backstabbing in your story, a lot of your readers are going to be hungry for justice!
It has a lot of potential for heartbreak and anger, for both characters and readers. When setting up a betrayal, it’s good to drop a few very subtle hints, but for the most part make it hard to see it coming. We need to be blindsided by it! But it also needs to make sense and feel organic, otherwise readers will think you just threw it in for drama.
Again, this can be emotionally manipulative. If you make a character seem sad or unsure about having to betray their friends, it adds some great tension. Your characters (and your readers) will keep asking “Will they turn good again??”
And the more the backstabber does to prove they are, in fact, a backstabber, the more our hearts break and our hope dies.
It might also lead to trust issues for your character down the road… meaning even more tension when the character finally meet someone they can trust, but can’t bring themselves to open up.
3. Reveal a BIG Lie
A lie can flip a character’s world—and by extension, a reader’s world—completely black and white. Everything they thought was true was a lie!
These lies either shrink the character’s world or expand it. This is also known as a reveal. It’s the same idea: things are different than we were led to believe.
A Lie that Expands:
Say your story is set in a modern day, realistic world like the one we live in. Revealing a lie like “magic is real” expands the world.
Suddenly, so many things are possible. This can be used as a call to adventure, a way to scare a character out of their baseline norm, and much more.
These lies aren’t always a bad thing, since they can open up possibilities (and by extension, hope) for your character. But there are still creative ways to twist it to your advantage!
A Lie that Shrinks:
Lies that shrink your world can be a lot more crushing. Where before we thought possibilities were almost endless, you can reveal that the truth is a lot more restricted.
Think of Darth Vader’s “I am your father” line for Luke. Before, the possibility of Luke’s father was endless. This reveal narrows things down for him considerably.
In one of my own novels, my character has always dreamed of meeting an angel. She’s heard that they’re gentle and selfless, and might even be able to save her grandmother’s life. So when she finally meets an angel and finds out they’re actually quite cruel and violent, her world shrinks and her heart breaks.
4. Make them Choose Between their Core Values
A character’s core values represent everything they stand for. It’s their entire basis for making decisions!
Another easy way to torture your characters is to put them in a situation where they don’t like any of the options. Not just because they options available have plot-related consequences, but because it’ll mess them up emotionally.
For example, let’s say your character values Friendship and Integrity. If friend A wants your character to lie about something, suddenly they’re in a tough spot! Their Friendships value means they should keep their friend’s trust by not lying, but the thought of lying (especially about something serious) makes your character miserable.
This is a very simple example, but you can take it a lot farther with your own characters! Check out the full article on Character Core Values for more details and examples you can use to make your character cry.
Ready to make your character’s life miserable?
This quick-and-dirty list is just a place to start! There are plenty more ways to torture your characters.
The BEST way to find new torture methods is to take note of your own heart breaking while reading a book or watching a movie. Why are you upset? Try to pinpoint the emotions you’re feeling and WHY it was such a heart-breaker for the character. And then brainstorm ways to replicate it!
How do you like to break your characters?