Music Inspired Post: Stressing Your Characters

‘Overwhelmed’ by Royal & the Serpent is a song that makes me think about myself.  The fun of having anxiety.  It does make me feel like I don’t know myself, but that’s not what I’m going for here.  This is about writing.

As an author, I put my characters through a lot of physical and emotional torment.  It’s rare that I have any heroes who make it through their adventure without earning at least some mental scars.  Ichabod Brooks might be it because you meet him long after he’s established his career.  All of the others are battered to the point where you can see they get overwhelmed.  This goes back to the emotions mentioned on Monday.  Sometimes, you need to push really hard and create some cracks.

Why do we do this?  I think it helps that these are fictional characters, so they’re easier to repair than a real human being.  You can also show that these heroes are strong-willed if they can continue advancing after being brutalized.  There are real people like that and we tend to hold them up as symbols of resilience.  In fantasy adventures, you want your heroes to be that way.  They are supposed to have been chosen for greatness even if they’re not destined.  By this I mean, you put them in the spotlight for a reason, which is why they are going to be going through so much.

Overwhelming your heroes has to be done carefully.  If you’re putting them under constant pressure with no signs of crumbling then you might have made a misstep.  We like to believe that a person can shoulder any amount of pressure, but this isn’t true.  They might develop some doubt, anxiety, depression, a mild phobia, physical scars, or any number of issues that will linger.  This is why overwhelming a hero, especially in a lengthy series, can help with evolution.  It gives them a new hurdle and may even set them back enough that they can start growing again.  Having a hero who doesn’t crack in the slightest means they are fully evolved and there’s no way to grow.  Hit them hard and you can open another door for them.

It’s understandable that an author might want to play nice with their characters.  Also that some authors are out for blood.  No idea why it seems to be extremes these days. I try to aim for the middle.  Putting heroes through difficult situations and having them come out damage, but still moving forward can be inspirational.  If a hero is never tested then an average reader can’t feel like they share that life experience.  If a hero is killed then they’re dead and that’s the end of their adventure, which means closure.  By having a hero be overwhelmed and keep going, you can show the reader an example of someone who is trying to heal.  This can be very important in this day and age since mental illness is on the rise.  People take inspiration from fictional characters all the time, so having one that shows such resilience can have a positive impact.

So, what do you think about overwhelming your characters?  Can it be inspirational for a reader to see a hero break, survive, and then continue while healing?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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12 Responses to Music Inspired Post: Stressing Your Characters

  1. L. Marie says:

    Really appreciate this post. Especially, “If a hero is never tested then an average reader can’t feel like they share that life experience.” I have seen many books (and some shows) lately where the protagonist comes out of the gate formidable and, thus, insulated from any attempts at testing. They remain the same way throughout the series. I seldom find these characters relatable. I love heroes who fail but get back on the horse. I mentioned in a previous comment that I love the soundtracks of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, because the music shows Miles’s evolution from zero to hero. Spider-Man (Peter Parker et al) in general is very relatable because he’s not perfect and is constantly tested.


  2. This is such a great post. It could have easily been a series. At this stage I’ve done a lot of things. My character, Clovis, is a force of nature. Readers loved him, but I always tried to keep his sections small. You were almost trained to expect all hell to break loose in his parts. I also believe in torturing characters. I’ve not been kind to Lizzie St. Laurent. I broke her mind, shot her and left her on the verge of death, and broke her heart. Some readers didn’t like that and thought I’d abandoned the humor of the series. In her upcoming tale she’s going to get turned into a toad. In my newest one, I showed it in a different way. I was brutal to Mari, but it goes on the page in the form of traumatic dreams. So many ways to work with this, but I’m not in favor of the modern boss characters who are really Mary Sues.


  3. It’s a balance we strike, challenging the characters enough that it isn’t a walk-over and you lose all suspense. But I think every author has to decide what content they’re willing or able to include in their work, too. Some might draw the line at animal cruelty, for instance, but still have humans die in battle. My personal one is sexual assault — I won’t include that in a story, and if something like that seems possible I’ll change the parameters, with no apology.


    • I’ve run into people who are fine with humans dying, but rage when any animal is hurt. Both in reality and fiction. I don’t know where I draw the line for my own stuff. I definitely don’t show sexual assault and rape, but I’ve made it clear when a character has suffered it. I notice that I pull this evil act out when I want to lock in that a villain is irredeemable and going to suffer when they die.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think the protagonist needs to be overwhelmed and then demonstrate their ability to move on from a breakdown. Makes the story so much more exciting.

    Liked by 1 person

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