15 Ways to Make Your Characters Suffer (for the Good of Your Novel)


Note: This post was originally published in 2016, and was updated in June 2018.

Do your characters suffer enough?

Even if you’re writing a light and fluffy romance, at some point, someone in your novel is going to need to get hurt.

I’m not suggesting all-out graphic torture here, obviously – unless that suits your genre. Suffering comes in a lot of different forms – and I’m going to go through a bunch of those in a moment.

In general, making characters suffer should do at least one, ideally both, of these:

  • Advance your plot: bad stuff may well need to happen in order for your heroes to get to (and earn) their happy ending. Often, some degree of suffering is what drives the plot: the protagonist is unhappy with their life as-is and wants to change things.
  • Deepen or reveal character: either we see who someone really is when they’re hurt (someone who seemed a bit of a wimp turns out to have hidden strength; someone who was nice on the surface reveals a vindictive side) … or it’s part of their character arc.

Any and all of your characters can get to suffer: heroes, villains, and those with walk-on parts. The main difference is in how the reader will respond.

Our natural reaction to seeing someone hurt or in pain is to feel sympathy towards them. If they’re a particularly nasty character, though, we might well feel they’re getting their just deserts. The more awful they are, the less likely we are to feel sorry for them – even if their suffering is pretty extreme (think Ramsay in Game of Thrones, for instance).

If a minor character suffers, the importance of this may well be how the hero (or villain) responds: do they help? Are they distressed? Amused? Indifferent? Introducing someone who’s in some kind of pain can also be a good way to instantly get the reader’s sympathy.

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Five Straightforward Ways to Create Stronger Characters

If your story doesn’t have strong, compelling characters … no-one’s going to want to read it.

That might sound harsh. But however intricate your plotting or however exotic your setting, if your characters are flat and uninteresting, there’s nothing for the reader to invest in.

We read stories because we’re interested in people… and what happens to them.

If your characters seem insipid or passive, here are three ways to make them into stronger, more interesting people.

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Why Repetition Can Be Powerful … and How to Get it Right

Is it ever okay to repeat the same word or phrase in your writing?

Unintentional repetition is something that authors are (quite rightly) warned to watch out for, particularly in fiction.

Intentional repetition, however, is a powerful tool: it can be used to make your points more memorable in non-fiction or to emphasise a particular motif in fiction. (And of course you can probably think of plenty of poems, or even children’s books, that use repetition.)

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Ten Book-Level Mistakes to Watch Out for When Redrafting Your Fiction [With Examples]


Stack of books

A few weeks ago, I posted about sentence-level mistakes: ones that are easy to spot from a page or a paragraph of writing.

Even if you write flawless prose, though, it’s possible to make bigger-picture mistakes over the course of a novel or novella … and these can sometimes be trickier to notice.

Here are ten that always make me wince (and, often, cause me to put a book down altogether, never to pick it up again):

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What Bad Writing Looks Like … and How to Fix It [With Detailed Examples]

A few weeks ago, on Amazon, an odd-looking book popped up as a recommendation for me. It was this one:

Screenshot of "Harry Potter: Forever into Eternity: Fan written Novel" on Amazon

I was a bit surprised to see fanfiction being sold on Amazon – particularly being promoted to me (however unwittingly) by Amazon.

So I took a look.

Before I go any further, I’ll say that I’ve read a fair amount of fanfiction in my time, and there’s plenty of brilliant, professional-quality work out there. I don’t want anything I write in this post to come across as a criticism of fanfiction, or fan writers, at all.

Sadly, this novel leaves quite a lot to be desired.

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Ten Sentence-Level Mistakes to Watch Out for When Editing Your Fiction [With Examples]

Magnifying glass over text.

When you’re editing fiction, whether it’s a short story or an epic novel, you need to edit on several different levels.

There’s the full-scale revision stage: where you go from first draft to second draft, and probably lose or gain some characters, cut or add a bunch of material, and make some major alterations to your text.

Depending on how tidy your first draft is, you might go through several complete rewrites. But at some stage, you’ll get to a point where you’re fairly happy with the broad strokes of your novel: you’ve got the right scenes, in the right order, and you’re pretty happy with the general progression of paragraphs: the pacing feels good and you’ve got a balance of dialogue and narrative that’s appropriate for your style and genre.

At that point, you’re into the “sentence-level” of editing. This is where you zoom in on the details and make sure that every sentence is pulling its weight … and that there aren’t any awkward words or phrases that distract your reader from your story.

Quick note: I’m not going to cover common typos and misspellings here, or how a sentence is put together in English. If you want advice on those, check out Your Dictionary’s list of commonly misspelled words and About.com’s information on Subjects, Verbs, and Objects.

Here are ten common sentence-level mistakes that crop up for a lot of writers (me included!) and that you might need to fix when you’re editing at this level:

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Anti-Heroes and Villains: What’s the Difference (and How Do You Write Them Well)?



Most stories, at least these days, don’t have flawless heroes and evil cackling villains. Readers – and writers! – tend to enjoy more complex characters.

At what stage, though, does a dark hero (aka “anti-hero”) turn into a villain?

The line between them can be a little blurry, and is as much about story role as it is about morality. Some characters can be tricky to categorise, and may potentially move from one role to another – especially in a series of novels. (In the Marvel movies, for instance, Loki is arguably an anti-hero in Thor and a villain in Avengers.)

In writing and literary circles, you’ll often hear “protagonist” and “antagonist” being used instead of “hero” and “villain” because these are a bit more emotionally neutral and describe a function within the story rather than a type of character … and this is the framework we’re going to use.

Quick note: if you’ve studied literature as part of a degree, you might have a rather different, more classic, definition for “anti-hero”, along these lines. That’s not what I’m discussing here (sorry)!

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Getting Apostrophes Right: From the Easy to the Tricky Cases



I think it’s a safe bet that you’ve come across the apostrophe before! (If not … there are two in the previous sentence.)

But even experienced writers can struggle with this punctuation mark.

In this post, I’m going to try to explain apostrophes as clearly as I can … and give you some help with the tricky cases that often trip people up.

If anything isn’t clear, or if you have any questions, just pop a comment below.

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When Dialogue Gets Weird: Representing Unorthodox Forms of Speech on the Page (Text Conversations, Psychic Communication, etc)

Whether you’ve written any fiction yet or not, you’re probably extremely familiar with how dialogue appears on the page: it’s surrounded by quotation marks.

Even if you’re not quite confident with all the finer details of formatting spoken words on the page, it’s probably perfectly natural to you to wrap these words in quotation marks. You likely don’t think twice about it, although this isn’t actually the only option you have.

“Standard” dialogue is, generally, represented in one of three ways:

Type #1: The Most Common Style for Novels and Short Stories

“Excuse me,” John said, “is this the train for London?”

“Yes, though it’s the all stopper,” Daniel said.

Type #2: Standard Format for Scripts, Occasionally Adopted by Novelists / Short Story Writers

John: Excuse me. Is this the train for London?

Daniel: Yes, though it’s the all-stopper.

Type #3: Used in Some Literary Fiction, Particularly Short Stories

– Excuse me, John said, is this the train for London?

– Yes, though it’s the all stopper, Daniel said.

(Type #3 takes some getting used to, and personally, I’m not entirely sure what benefit it has over standard quotation marks … other than, perhaps, lending a clear “literary” stamp to the novel or story. You can see it in use part-way through D.W. Wilson’s essay On the Notoriously Overrated Powers of Voice in Fiction or How to Fail at Talking to Pretty Girls.)

Chances are, you’re using type #1, and that’s all well and good.

But what do you do when you want to represent an exchange of words that isn’t quite so conventional as a face-to-face chat?

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What if You’re Just Not Good Enough to be a Successful Writer?


What if you’re not good enough?

What if you enjoy writing … but you’re actually pretty rubbish at it?

What if any success you’ve had so far has just been a fluke?

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only writer who’s ever had those thoughts – more times than I care to admit.

Perhaps you feel that way too.

It’s easy – and tempting – to say here of course you’re good enough; who am I (or anyone else!) to tell you that you aren’t?

But I think that invalidates a deep, difficult fear for a lot of us.

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