Be Mean to Your Characters?

After the Flood - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

After the Flood - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m trying to learn something new, like writing fiction, I buy a book or research the topic online. However, one piece of advice that I read—‘be mean to your characters’—has never felt right to me. At least it didn’t until I lived it this summer.

I like my characters. I don’t want to be mean to them. Sure, I understand that a story needs conflict, but that’s what bad guys are for - right?  

No. Evidently having a bad guy isn’t enough. A good story needs well-defined characters actively working against one or more conflicts. In her book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix, & Finish with Confidence, Roz Morris says:

“All good fiction comes down to characters, no matter what the genre. Thrillers need active characters, but so does literary fiction. Jane Austen’s heroines were not wimps. They try to change things. The main character could even be someone who had previously waited to see if things would get better, but now, in these circumstances, they will finally have to DO something. ‘Trouble’ need not be a murder or a stalker. It could be the new stepfather to your hero’s grandchildren, or their provocative fanciable co-star in a romantic film. It could be a job they realize they can no longer stand. It is whatever life event kicks the hero in a way they just can’t ignore.

"The general ‘trouble’ or ‘conflict’ elements are the hero versus:

  • Themselves

  • Society

  • The environment or nature…

  • Other characters who are competing for the same thing as the hero, or want to do something that might spoil the hero’s happiness or stop the hero getting what they want.” (Morris, 2009)

OK—that makes sense. A story is going to be better if the heroine is actively working against conflict to achieve a goal, but that doesn’t mean I have to make her life miserable by piling one conflict after another on her head until she wonders if she has the strength to deal with it all. Or at least I didn’t believe it meant that.

One of my favorite ‘how to write’ sources is K. M. Weiland’s blog ‘Helping Writers Become Authors.’ ( She wrote:

“I slapped the FedEx guy this morning.

Okay, not really. My FedEx guy is totally cool. And he brings me cool stuff. I’d never slap him. But that got your attention, didn’t it? Way more so than if I ‘d said, “I thanked the FedEx guy this morning.”

The difference between the two accounts, of course, is conflict. You may not have thought well of me for slapping that poor, undeserving FedEx guy, but I guarantee you would have been interested! Conflict isn’t nice, but it’s inevitably interesting.” (Weiland, 2016)

Her example got my attention, but it was my own life experiences that finally convinced me.

I was looking forward to the summer of 2018. I had finished the first draft of my novel Saving the Land and released it to beta readers. Their comments had given me an entirely new perspective on my story and how it might be improved.  My plan was to spend the summer revising my novel and updating my website, so I would be ready to pitch my book to agents in the fall.

However, life sometimes has a way of changing our plans. My husband’s health deteriorated, and I took him to a neurologist. The doctor insisted on an EEG, blood tests, and an MRI so he could tell what was happening.

Before the tests were even all done, a pipe broke and flooded my house. Of course, that happened on the Sunday before July 4th and there were no plumbers or insurance agents available to help me figure out what to do. As the water poured out of the wall and I used every towel and sheet I owned trying to stop the flow, I remember feeling so alone.

Every Towel Wet - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

Every Towel Wet - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

Almost two weeks later, the insurance people finally sent a water remediation estimator in to help me determine what needed to be done. His crew was scheduled to start work the next Monday, so my sister came, and we spent the weekend packing up antiques, china, and breakables.

The water remediation teams came and cleaned up most of the mildew, but not all of it. I could smell it. But, because they couldn’t smell it, they said they had done everything necessary, and I was free to hire a contractor and rebuild. Then they left.

My sister came back. Now we had to pack up everything, furniture included, and cover it with plastic because all the affected rooms had to be painted. My home became a warehouse—rooms filled with tall piles of plastic covered boxes and furniture.

Then my husband started tilting when he walked, and his doctor said to take him to the emergency room. The ER doctors thought it might be a stroke, so they ran all kinds of tests and kept us overnight. My stress levels skyrocketed. I still had to finish packing up my stuff, but I couldn’t leave my husband. The nurses didn’t have time to watch over a blind man with dementia in addition to all their other patients.

It turned out it wasn’t a stroke, and we were released the next day. But I was given instructions to find him an ENT specialist, add new exercises to his daily routine, and watch him carefully. I had all I knew how to deal with when my freezer died, and I had to sort through the thawing food quickly to see what could be saved.  

I was so stressed out by this point I couldn’t sleep. I knew it was a mistake to reconstruct my kitchen without making sure the mold was eradicated, but no one could smell it but me. I didn’t know what to do. I had reached the end of my rope, so finally, I just prayed.

Rebuilding - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

Rebuilding - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

My husband is doing well. I found a contractor who not only believed me but could smell the mold himself. His crew has been working over a week now, and my home smells fresh again. I’m not going to meet my goal of having my book ready to pitch to agents by the fall, but we are on the road to recovery, and our home will eventually be comfortable and safe again.

As I sat and thought over what the last few weeks have been like, I finally understood the advice, ‘be mean to your characters.’ Which story would interest you more? A story about how I revised my book and the detailed processes I used, or the story I told you above about the many challenges I’ve faced in the last few weeks?

I lived it, and I hope I never have to live it again, but despite that, I think the story with all the problems is more interesting. I love my characters. Most of them are good people that don’t deserve to be treated badly. But, I want them to be part of an interesting and exciting story—so I’m going to get mean.

Almost Fixed - Photo by Susan L. Davenport

Almost Fixed - Photo by Susan L. Davenport


Morris, R. (2009). Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish with Confidence. London: Roz Morris.

Weiland, K. M. (2016, February 1). Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 48: No Conflict Between Characters. Retrieved from Helping Writers Become Authors: