Putting Your Characters Through the Wringer

The wringer through which we are supposed to put our characters
The wringer through which we are supposed to put our characters. Photo: Farm Woman Washing Clothes. Arkansas, 1938. Photo by Russell Lee. Library of Congress collection.

This week we’re discussing how we torture our characters. Characters must be put through the wringer, made miserable and low, thrown every obstacle, and then come out the other end a better person for it. Chuck Wendig has a great piece on how to mess with your characters (but with more f-bombs than we tend to use over here on the Deb Ball. Not that I don’t love a good f-bomb; I just save them to use with family).

Yet I struggled with this topic. “Torturing my protagonist? Is that what I do?” I thought to myself. And then I realized, of course I do, but those aren’t the words I would use to describe it.

A story with no conflict is merely an anecdote. If it’s something you’re telling at a party and it’s shorter than a few minutes and has a nice laugh at the end, people are going to enjoy it. But if it’s an 80,000 word novel, and the main character is swimming along, just enjoying life, well, the reader is going to be pretty bored pretty fast. My novel has plenty of conflict. But I didn’t set out to continually throw obstacles in my characters’ paths; I created my characters and their situations and I let them discover their own obstacles.

Poster promoting prenatal care
Poster promoting prenatal care, c.1936. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WPA Federal Arts Project Poster Collection (LC-USZC2-5511).

The basic premise of MODERN GIRLS is an unmarried young woman and her middle-aged mother both find themselves with unwanted pregnancies. Okay, unwanted pregnancy. It happens. There’s conflict in there. But, let’s face it, turn on the news and we hear lots about unwanted pregnancy and plenty about single parents choosing to have children on their own. Reproductive rights may be controversial (just turn on a presidential debate!), but unplanned pregnancies? Do they really have the power to shock? Maybe for some, but in suburban Boston where I live, not so much.

So how to turn up the stakes? Well, what would happen to someone who had an unwanted pregnancy in a different era? Say in the middle of the Depression? What then? Abortion wasn’t legal (it became legal in New York State in 1970). Being a single mother by choice was unheard of. And living at home to have a baby and then giving it up for adoption would be dishonorable. So for 19-year-old Dottie, being an unmarried mother was not only not a choice, it was a stigma that could taint both her and her family for their lives. And for Rose, her mother, being married and not wanting a child was considered down right unfeminine. Who would not want a child? What about the fact that as an immigrant woman with family still trapped in Europe, she’d much rather fight to get them out than be changing diapers?

Now we have some tension.

From this, my characters ran into their own obstacles, which I prefer not to delve too much into because I personally I don’t like knowing too much about a novel before I read it, so I don’t want to share too much of mine. But I will say, the mores of the time throws in complications, what Dottie did to put herself in that position is a complication, the looming war is a complication. Each problem snowballs into a larger problem as things progress.

Characters need to be tortured. But sometimes it isn’t such a deliberate technique. Your characters can torture themselves by the problems they create and the situations they put themselves in and how they respond to them. At no point should the reader ever feel like the writer is manipulating the characters; the story should unfold naturally, with the problems seeming logical and yet insurmountable.

You can torture all you like. Personally, I save it for my kids. (“Mom! Don’t kiss me in public!” says my humiliated 10-year-old, while I smooch her in front of her school and laugh maniacally.) And I let my characters torture themselves.

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Jennifer S. Brown is the author of MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin). The novel, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Learn more at www.jennifersbrown.com.

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This article has 4 Comments

  1. I don’t think of it as “torture” — it’s really just “life.” (Unless you’re writing Braveheart or something like that, of course.)

    You can be as conflict-averse as you want to be (hey, I was raised as a Quaker, so “conflict-averse” was pretty much automatic), but your life will be full of conflict anyway. The question is not whether you torture your characters, it’s whether you let them live as much as you have.

    Speaking of unwed mothers in the past, there’s a terrific story by Stephen King called “The Breathing Method” — the only story in his “Different Seasons” collection not to be made into a movie.

    1. Exactly! I think that’s why I was resistant to the term. I agree that life is full of conflict, but I do think that it’s an author’s job to place the characters into a situation where they will be most challenged. But, yes, the characters need to live.

      I read “Different Seasons” so long ago, that I don’t remember that story. I’ll put it on my to-read list. Thanks, Anthony!

  2. I love the idea of looking at conflict through a historical lens…things that are no biggie today but woukd have been life-changing 80 years ago. And the unintentionally pregnant mother/daughter? Well, that’s just genius.

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