April Theme: Meet Mean Irene, or How to Be Cruel to Your Characters

I grew up with three brothers.* Two of them are older than me, and from the time I was an infant in the cradle, they have been teaching me about cruelty and how to survive it. When I was just a couple of weeks old, my mother says they just about smothered me by emptying a bottle of baby powder onto my sweet sleeping face. And that was just the start! So I owe my capacity for cruelty to my older brothers.

And really, isn't cruelty one of the best gifts we authors can give our characters? It's what makes our stories interesting, it's why we root so hard for a character to make it in the end. As readers, we like to see our favorite characters suffer -- and overcome. But as writers... well, sometimes it's not all that easy to be cruel to these characters we know and love so well.

I'm reminded of a plot worksheet (I still use) that came to me via a writing friend who got it at one of the big SCBWI conferences in LA. I *think* the worksheet was originally presented by Cynthia Lord, just after RULES was awarded its Newbery Honor.

Among other things, the worksheet contained this vital question:

"What did you do to prove to the reader that you are an evil bastard author willing to let bad things happen to good characters?"

At the time, I did not have an answer. That spot on the worksheet was blank.

But. All I had to do -- all any of us has to do -- is to go back in time and remember. For me that meant revisiting my childhood and collecting stories and memories about those brothers o' mine. And then there she was, Mean Irene, ready to retaliate, learning her capacity for cruelty, finally ready to make LEAVING GEE'S BEND a book worth reading.

Poor Ludelphia Bennett! It's not enough that she's blind in one eye and must set off on a journey all alone, with nothing. It storms, the ferry busts loose, she can't swim, she lands in the worst possible place, she trusts the wrong people, she loses the things most important to her, she can't find a way home, and when finally, FINALLY, just when you think she's going to make it, she's got the medicine for Mama in her hands, she's journeyed so far and long, then then... she slips and the bottles break and the medicine drips down down through the floorboards, not a drop left for Mama.

As hard as it is, we as authors have to be really tough on our characters. Ask yourself: What's the worst thing that can happen to this character? Write that.

* I also have a sister who remains the best gift I ever got.


  1. Love this.

    I tell kids that authors are mean people: we can't give our characters what they want and must make them face their greatest fears and weaknesses. Now I want that worksheet!

  2. This is great, Irene. Thanks! Being tough on my characters is one of my biggest writing hurdles - I will go to great lengths - wash and fold all the laundry, even - to avoid difficult scenes. But that is where the heart of the story lies. May I, too have the worksheet, please? Or should I say - give it up, lady! Hand over that worksheet. (My attempt to be mean, or at least tough!)

  3. When I was young, I was drawn to characters who went through the kind of suffering Ludelphia does; not because I ever endured such strife but because it made my small struggles so much easier to bear. Relatability is everything! And yes, the worksheet must be surrendered. Bwa-ha-ha!


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