Why I almost destroy all my characters and why you should too
You must destroy all your characters. At least, destroy all your main characters. But not literally, just metaphorically. Destroying them is fundamental for any proper writing.
And I am not joking, I am pretty serious about this. If your main character is not broken or destroyed at the end of the story, changing his/her idea about the world that surrounds him/her, there is a high probability of you doing wrong your work as writer.
What is a story? A story is a journey, a path to follow in order to go from point A to point B. But that journey CANNOT be simple: it must have lots of difficulties and problems for the main character. A story is just life, it isn’t easy, everybody has to grow and mature, by facing their own problems.
Why must a story have difficulties? “Maybe that story is not like real life”, you are thinking right now. And you could be right, maybe that story is just totally made up. But, would you believe as real (or believable) a story with no problems for anybody, with no need of improvement, with no struggles? Me neither. And why? Because if there is no problem, then there is no story.
Let’s just think about this: I tell you a story about John going to the shop, buying some groceries and coming back home. Do you like it? Maybe, but you are waiting for more, for something interesting. I am sorry, John, but your grocery shopping is not enough for a story. It needs something: a problem, a struggle, a catastrophe. If John says that he has no money to pay for it and that he has to earn that money somehow and quickly, that suddenly gets your attention. What is the point on telling a story if there is nothing new, nothing important or nothing different?
So, we all agree that a main character must go through some difficulties in order to create the story. But… maybe you don’t want to (almost) destroy them, am I right? I am sorry, but you have to. It’s for the story’s shake. At least, if you want to get the best out of your story. And don’t get me wrong, I am not talking about mutilating them, driving them crazy or any kind of torture (unless you want to), I am just talking about making them pushing their boundaries as far as they can. If your character is well-made and you have his/her background story pretty well structured, that is going to be really easy.
I have some examples for you to understand this.
- Was Frodo the same person at the beginning and at the end of The Lord of the Rings? Imagine that character without living that epic journey from his peaceful Shire to the darkness of Mordor. He would be still a peaceful Hobbit but with no story to tell, with no experience to make him different. And, because of this, there would be no story to tell.
- John McClane went through a quite horrible Christmas on Die Hard. Would he be the same person without that night on that skyscraper? He would even have lost his wife without that experience in his life!
- Dante Alighieri went through Hell. LITERALLY. He walked the 7 rings of Hell and, for sure, he changed a lot. Without him going through that, there would be no awesome, incredible story to tell.
- Even, let me say, “childhood” stories are about these extreme journeys. The Little Prince tells a story that took place on another world, using an impossible experience to force the main character into a new idea of our own world.
Do you think that, if they would have gone through a quarter or even a half of their struggles, they would be as amazing as they are? No, they won’t. They face near-death experiences, wounds, madness, or contact with very strange people, very traumatic or life-change experiences to just continue their life like always.
Do you see the pattern that all those stories share? All these characters, from different genres and platforms, had horrible experiences, very difficult situations, and they all surpass them and became better approaches of themselves. They all were pushed to the edge in order to take the best out of them. And it worked. Now, they are examples, motivations for us to get better, to improve, just like they did.
So, don’t hesitate, do it: try to destroy your characters. Force them to overcome their fears, to exceed their limits and they will give you an awesome story for you to write. You will thank me 🙂
PS: If you want to know more details about why and how you can almost destroy your characters, I recommend you read The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell.