The advice to hurt your characters is given so often to writers that I thought it was a cliche by now. In fact, I would have told you that things had swung too far the other way, with some writers relishing in inflicting every known form of pain and suffering on their poor protagonists.

But maybe everyone didn’t get the memo? A friend of mine recently asked me to read her manuscript, and while there was a lot that was good about it, it had one glaring flaw. Everything was too easy for the protagonist. There was a conflict, sort of, but it was all worked out with a nice heart-to-heart and some convenient self-awareness. No one got hurt, no one was mean or selfish, and absolutely no one antagonized. Despite the protag’s many endearing qualities, it was very hard to really root for her, because she never had a real obstacle to overcome.

I remember, some years ago, reading another manuscript with many of the same flaws. In both cases, I think that the authors were mislead by their choice of genre to think that they could write a story without struggle and without pain. One was an Edwardian romance, and the other a light contemporary comedy — both of these being genres that generally eschew the dark and gritty. But the lack of angst and torture does not mean that you get to ignore basic requirements for plot and conflict. Rather, the struggles and the difficulties that the protag faces have to be that much more significant to the character, and the struggles that the protag goes through have to be that much more difficult in order to make their goals seem worthwhile.

Wes Anderson is the master of this. In most of his movies, the characters are moved by solely personal goals, and little is at stake other than their individual aspirations. The tone is light and funny, even when pirates take over your boat, and the angst is comic rather than dark. But this doesn’t mean that Anderson is easy on his characters. On the contrary, he throws every kind of obstacle that you can imagine in their way, and often they don’t actually get what they want, even at the end of the story.

This is how you should make a light contemporary comedy. Not by toning down the conflicts, but by turning them up, making them more meaningful and more over-the-top, and having your protagonist treat them as deadly serious regardless of how absurd they are.

(As for me, I don’t have this problem. If anything, I err on the side of dark-and-gritty. Which has problems of its own…)

Pages and pages have been written on the topic of pantsers and planners. If you’ve been a writer for any amount of time, you’ve probably encountered the terms at some time, and chances are that you have strong feelings about which way is best, or at least which way is yours.

Me, I’m a planner. At first I thought it was a pantser, because I wrote my first novel without any kind of plan at all, and it turned out fine. (Relatively speaking.) But this turned out to be an anomaly: I was able to write my first book without any written plan because I had been planning it in my head for ten years. Once I moved on to fresh stories, I found that I needed a plan, or else I got lost and the story died.

However, nearly all discussions of pants vs. plan that I’ve read focus on plot and structure. Character, insofar as it’s mentioned at all, is either assumed to be part of the plan (by the planners) or to flow from that same wellspring of mystical inspiration that gives you the rest of the book (the pants). Here is where my technique is different from both the average pantser and the average planner: I plan my plots, but I let my characters take care of themselves. I know who the characters are, of course, but I don’t really know much about their personalities, histories, vices, or virtues before I write the story.

When I say this, a great many writers will recoil in horror. The problem, they say, is that then my characters will be lifeless, mindless plot-puppets going about and doing things because I, the author, have decreed it, and not because it flows naturally from the characters’ motivations. I had this fear myself when I first started this habit. But I discovered that my fears had no basis. The characters I created this way did not read like plot-puppets, but were as fully-fleshed as any other character I ever wrote.

The reason for this is simple: character is established by action. What this means is that it’s possible to learn about a character, even one that you’re writing, by observing what he does, in much the same way that you learn about the character of those around you by observing their actions. If your protagonist saves a kitten in chapter one, and punches his wife in chapter two, that tells you something about who he is. It isn’t actually necessary to have an elaborate understanding of his innermost thoughts in order to write his character; merely knowing what he does can be your starting place. In that way, your plot outline can suffice as a character outline. Your characters are the sort of people who will act in the way that your plot specifies.

If you do this badly, you can still wind up with bad characters. But generally these problems will already be visible in your plot outline. If the plot is implausible and unmotivated, then your characters will be implausible and unmotivated as well. But if your plot is taut and consistent, then in general the characters you discover while writing will hum.

The only downside to this is that I know my characters much better by the end of the story than the beginning, and I sometimes have to revamp the character’s thoughts and interior monologues from the first part of the story when I rewrite. But as writing problems go, this barely qualifies as a nuisance.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me present to you the most awful piece of extruded fantasy product that I’ve ever had the misfortune to read in its entirety:

Man, this thing was awful

A March into Darkness by Robert Newcomb. If you’ve read this book, then you know what’s coming. It was just… I mean… words fail me. This was bad in nearly every way that it is possible for a book to be bad. I would never have read the entire thing, except that at the time I was under unusual circumstances: I was stuck in a room with nothing else to read for an entire weekend, and one of my fellow room-sitters had this book with him. It was either read this book, or stare at the wall. I chose to read the book.

In retrospect, staring at the wall may have been less painful.

Let me quickly run down the book’s faults, before we move on to the one thing that the book did well.

  1. The protagonist was a complete idiot, and a grating, indulgent whiner at that. Main character stupidity was the main driver of the plot for the first quarter of the book.
  2. The worldbuilding was a fourth-generation Xeroxed copy of a Dungeons and Dragons cliche guide. There was nothing inventive or surprising about any of it. (Well, except for the invisible flying magical manta ray army. That was kind of cool.)
  3. The dialog was awful. It was so banal and so predictable that I learned to just skim the pages of dialog looking for the longer-than-average paragraphs, because that was where the exposition nuggets were buried. Everything else was the most juvenile, cringe-inducing conversation that you’ve ever read.
  4. The characters were factory-built from plastic parts. I can’t remember a single one of them aside from their most generic specifiers: “the protagonist”, “the girl” (there’s only one of significance), “the wizard”, etc.
  5. The plot problems were all solved by a combination of coincidence and application of magical technobabble. The main antagonist is supposedly invincible because he has a kind of magical martial arts training that takes centuries to complete. A major plot point is the protag trying to find the ancient monastery where this technique is taught and begin training, so that he has at least a chance of standing up to the baddie. And then, about 100 pages before the end, they discover a magic spell they can cast that will allow them to skip straight to being a grand-master. And why did we spend all of this time reading about the %!#$&^ training?

But there was one saving grace. One thing, one thing that kept me turning pages instead of going back to the comforting tedium of wall-watching.

The plot moved like a crack money on rocket skates.

Had I been reading under normal circumstances, I probably would not have kept reading long enough for the book to get its plot hooks into me. And even after I had sunk a few hours into the book, I looked up about once a chapter and said, “Why am I still reading this dreck?” But I kept going. Not just because I had nothing else to do, but because I actually wanted to know what happened next. When I had to put the book away for an hour, I kept thinking about it. The girl was in danger! The wizard was going to discover something magical! The protagonist was angsting about something! Would the girl be saved? What did the wizard discover? Will the protag stop being such a putz? I was aware—painfully, eye-gougingly aware—of the fact that every one of these plot points was a cliche. But nonetheless, I cared. Not about the characters, and certainly not about the setting, but about what happened next.

In part, the relentless nature of the plot is what made the later betrayals so galling. When I wondered How would the protag overcome the baddie?, the answer turned out to be By using a magic spell to make the previous 200 pages of martial arts training irrelevant. This made me mad, because I was actually invested in the answer. Not very invested, mind you, but invested enough to be upset that the resolution was so stupid. In fact, it was only as I reached the end of the book that the novel’s full stupidity began to weigh on me, because I realized that the one good thing in this trainwreck was itself going to be derailed, as all of the dilemmas of the plot were resolved in the cheesiest and most obnoxious way possible. And so I resigned myself to skimming over page after page of banal, repetitive dialog and burning through hordes of doomed redshirts on my way to the climax, knowing that it, too, was bound to be a disappointment. And it was a disappointment.

But I did learn some things along the way.

First, plot matters. Many readers get their fix from character, ideas, or prose more than plot. I would normally count myself as one of those. But even a convicted setting-and-style junkie like me couldn’t help but be taken in by the sweet plot crack that Newcomb put into his book, and I kept coming back for another hit. Even after it was clear that the plot had been cut with some nasty stuff, and even after I was sure I was going to regret it. I still wanted more. After a while I started to hate myself, wishing I could kick the habit, but the book would not let me go until I had burned through to the very last page.

The second point is don’t disappoint your reader. If the conclusion of the book had actually satisfied me rather than dissolving into a mushy pile of cliche and frustration, I might have tentatively recommended it. I mean, for a certain kind of reader, the kind who doesn’t care about characterization or prose style or anything else, this could actually be a good book. The opening is kind of interesting. At first it seems like it’s going to go somewhere compelling. If there had been any follow-through, if the author had actually tried to solve his plot problems rather than just hand-wave them away, it might have been kind of okay. Not great literature, mind you, but a pulpy little fantasy romp. Instead it was a disaster.

It turns out that Newcomb’s publishing contract was cancelled after the sequel to this book. I can’t imagine why.