How to Effectively Torture Your Characters: A Guide from the Master

Hello, everyone! I think this is some of the first "writing advice" I've done on this blog, and that makes me a bit nervous, as I'd hardly consider myself a professional. But I do think I have some experience in this topic, and edits on the second book in my series are only making that stronger (*coughs hysterically*). So today's post is on how to torture your characters effectively!

1. Figure out their worst fear and play to that. 

In my series, I have this villain who is an absolutely soulless, bloodthirsty assassin. She doesn't flinch at killing dozens of people and she's never failed a mission. She's hardcore and she's cruel--and she likes to think she has no soft side.

But the thing is, she's also insecure, because she's only human and it's not like there's much she can do about THAT. So as the series progresses, she starts to grapple more and more with the ultimate evil, the thing she fears most of all--her conscience. 

Obviously this sort of point doesn't only apply only to villains--if your protagonist's worst fear is losing everything, make it seem like they will. If their ultimate goal is to protect someone they love, dangle that person just out of their reach. Don't let them win easily--don't just make it hard for them to attain the goals, but turn around and use the goal itself to make their lives harder.

2. Don't heap ALL the torture on one character. 

It would be ridiculously easy for me to make one of my characters the scapegoat and let everyone else drift along. But I can't do that, for balance reasons. Esma, my protagonist, suffers, but I also have to make sure that my side characters go through pain and trauma as well. Otherwise, it seems like the entire universe is out to get that one person (if you're writing a book where that's your goal, of course, feel free to avoid this step, but I recommend still not making one person the only one who suffers). This makes it super easy for your protagonist to be holier-than-thou or be a loud sufferer, and neither of those are fun traits to read about. 

3. But at the same time...don't torture all the characters EXCEPT for one.

I have one character who's sort of the happy-go-lucky, cheerful, optimistic type in each of my stories. I have to--it's like my version of comic relief. In the Pentegreens Series, that would be Derek Ternarnthien; in Watched, my other WIP that I've talked about here some, it would be either Jeannie or Bryce. The thing I have to watch out for is that I don't let that person slide through the conflict unscathed. They have a better attitude, perhaps, than my train wreck characters, but that doesn't mean they get off easier. In fact, Derek may well be the character who suffers the most in the end...*sniffles* *cries*

4. Death is NOT a bad thing...but do NOT kill people for no reason, I beg of thee. 

I'm definitely not one of those authors who shies away from killing the important characters. At the moment I'm counting on my fingers the number of important characters who die in the Pentegreen series and there's, er, eight or nine of them. *chokes and backs away* My goodness, I'm outdoing myself here, and that's not even counting characters who I plan to kill in the Watched series and the super-secret project. I think Sweat and Gold is the only story I've written where the stakes were something other than death. So...yeah, if death is something that fits your story, don't shy away from it! Go for it! Kill people!

But please, please, please, if you're going to kill people, make sure it has a purpose. Give them a reason for dying. Otherwise, it just feels LAZY. I'm thinking of Mockingjay at the moment--I know most people who are interested in the Hunger Games have probably read or seen it at this point, but I won't name any names here. I'll just say that two people die in the last book, and they are THE WRONG PEOPLE, someone else should have died both times, and IT WAS STUPID AND USELESS. It didn't make me sad, it didn't break my feels--it just made me ANGRY. Both times. 

Moral of the story: If you're going to kill someone, kill them the way the Important Character in THG book 1 dies (y'all know who that is.) Do NOT kill them the way people die in Mockingjay. 

5. Give your characters breaks between the problems. 

I'm one of those people who needs to see both the painful bits, where the stakes are high and there's lots of screaming and blood and fighting; and the calm bits, where the characters get a break. In one of my books, there's a scene towards the beginning where three of my characters are running from bounty hunters through the woods. It's (hopefully) a tense scene, and there's a lot going on--but then I give them time to rest and recuperate and sass each other afterward. 

I did this same thing with pretty much the first third of my third Pentegreen book (whoops). The ending of book 2 is pretty brutal on a couple of my characters, and they needed a chance to recover if they were to get through what I had ahead for them. So they get time to cry and be emotional and hug it out and form new relationships that weren't there before, but then they're off and running again, and that's how it should be. Balance is key. 

That's about all I have to say on the subject...what do you guys think? Do you enjoy torturing your characters? (I think we writers are all sociopaths xD) Do you have any advice on this particular topic? Are you very anxious about my characters now? Chat with me in the comments below!


  1. I quite agree with these tips and have probably used them at one time or another....

    Frankly, I do not torture my characters too often (I'm wayyyyyyy tooo much of a motherly writer) Though if it is really needed, I will kill off a character every once in a while.....

    Awesome post, Faith!

    1. Haha, I think we all do without necessarily realizing it xD

      Well, that's good! We need those authors too ;)


  2. #2 made me laugh and #4 is so true! My latest book is a contemporary, but wow I've never put a character through so much! I definitely need to flesh out the #5 parts ;)

    1. I love that! Contemporaries where the stakes are high are AWESOME.

  3. These are some great tips! I will definitely be applying these to my newest WIP (my poor characters...). Thanks!

  4. *cough cough* clearly I don’t torture my characters enough. But I'M TOO EMOTIONALLY ATTACHED TO THEM. THIS IS NOT A GOOD THING.

    (although I did just kill off a character two days ago and another one yesterday, so whoops XD)

    Great tips! I’m about ready to edit my WIP, so I may have to put more conflict in it....

    1. BE EMOTIONALLY ATTACHED! TORTURE THEM ANYWAY! The story cannot progress without you making them go through ALL THE PAIN mwahahahaha

      (good job. *nods* You're getting there)

      Yes! Conflict is VERY good!

  5. I'm learning to torture my character more the more i write. I mostly focus on the action in my books. I try to do the tips you talked about. All of the tips are great!!!


    But seriously-this is great and really helpful!! You should do more writing advice. :)


      Aww, thanks! Maybe I will (when I figure out what I could possibly have expertise in...*cringes*)

  7. Awesome advice, Faith! And yes, I am concerned about your characters. I loves Derek.

    As if I needed more ways to torture my characters. *laughs like a maniac* *cries* I both love and hate torturing them? On one hand of course I'm an evil overlord tyrant person on the other hand my heart is a bleeding mess because I hurt myself just as much as I hurt my characters.

    I one hundred percent agree with you about those Hunger Games deaths, though!

    Lol. Bobby at the moment thinks that she's the character gets by unscathed because she has minimal injuries at the end of the first book whereas my other characters all nearly died multiple times. I'm laughing at her right now. Haha. Bobby, you got three more books to survive, baby girl. You are so not okay.


    1. Yes, you should be xD And awww, yes, he's the best. He may well be my favorite xD

      *cries with you* Pleeeeeeeease be nice to your poor babies every once in a while! Pwease? *puppy dog eyes* They deserve little moments :'(

      YES! Ugh, we're not even going to go into the one--I LITERALLY THREW MY BOOK ACROSS THE ROOM I WAS SO MAD. I think I've told you that story? But even if I haven't, I'm sure you can guess which charrry it was >:(

      Oh, poor Bobby :( She knows NOTHING! Nothing at all! Mwahahahahaha.

    2. *halp* XD He's just so soft and squishy, he's not afraid to aggressively care and so I can't help but aggressively care about him.

      But how can I not when you've given me all of this great advice on how to torture them effectively??? No worries though, I'll keep rule number 5. Like in ACSoM where I had Alicia draw her childhood memories of Dante... right before everything started to go down XD

      I think you have? But I cannot remember which character it was because I know my family hates Prim's death and I'm just sitting over here like... but Finnick? So I can never remember which of the two it is (wasn't it Finnick???)

      No, no she does not Mwaha-waaaahh

    3. Yes!!! I have a hard time choosing favorites among my charries, but he ranks pretty high ^_^

      YES KEEP NUMBER 5! That scene with Alicia and Dante made me cry, no joke. *sniffles just thinking about it* But also! It was so precious!!!!!! You are a MASTER at writing that sort of thing, no joke.

      Yeah, it's Finnick. :'( I mean, Prim's death is sad enough, but FINNICK'S KILLS ME TOO.

  8. I love how your giving tips about how to torture your characters! It's hilarious, and after reading some of your writing, I think I can attest to the fact, that you are quite skilled in this area.

    Great tips!

    1. Yes! *evil smirk* I am quite skilled, thank you.

      Thank you <3

  9. This post is SPOT. ON. I was nodding all the way through. (But also completely and utterly terrified for the Pentegreen children. NINE deaths? FAITH YOU SCARE ME.)

    Playing on the characters' worst fears is seriously the key to a truly good story I believe. Dangling it in front of them or even making their fear HAPPEN can give your readers those feels faster than anything. Such a great tip we all need to remember!

    And I love your advice on spreading all the torture around. XD It's true though! If all but one of the character goes through the adventure unscathed than it's really unrealistic. And...I tend to give me happiest characters the most torture too. :x We're so psychotic! LOLZ.

    A BIG yes to #4 and the Mockingjay deaths. >.> If your deaths are just THERE for shock and drama, it's just maddening. Ugh.

    #5 is soooo important! I think it was in the Go Teen Writers book where I first learned this concept. I believe it was Stephanie Morrill who said it's like a pendulum, going back and forth between high stakes scenes and rest scenes. Balance is absolutely key, YES.

    This post was writing advice gold. Thank you for sharing!

    1. (Yeah, even I am not sure how that happened? I don't know if this makes it any better, but I AM counting villains in there, so...some number from 1 to 9 is villains xD)

      YES! Make the worst happen. Kill your readers' feels and your characters' dreams. I mean--ahem--write nice lovely stuff that helps them reach their goals! Hurt them? Noooooo never. xD

      I'm so picky about that! Like, there are some books where there's simply no emotional or physical trauma for some of the characters and it drives me CRAZY.

      I know! I used to be really bad about balancing that and think that pacing was only good when people were running for their lives--but that's NOT how it works! So important to remember that. :D

      You're so welcome! And ahh, thank you <3 You're too sweet.

  10. Great tips! I'll definitely take these into account with my current WIP. (Because I don't torture my characters enough . . . XD)

  11. Yes to all these tips!! I'm pretty intense with how much torture I give my characters so I found myself nodding throughout the whole post. xD Much as I'll probably scream at you when I read your books, it's so important to not shy away from killing characters, so long as they have a purpose! I always thinks more highly of authors who are willing to make cutting blows.

    1. Yeah, I am poor kids xD I think deaths are important, frankly. A lot of authors are so skittish about it--I've always found that kind of silly. SHOW THAT THE STAKES ARE REAL! XD

  12. Hahahah yess to all of these!! You're totally right, I think all writers are secretly sociopaths... We can't help torturing all our characters at least a little bit. I think I need to work on #2. I recently read an old draft for a WIP for the first time again and WOW I just completely tortured one character and everyone else got out unharmed!

    1. Yes! Old drafts always seem to be so full of that xD I know my older stuff is all like that :/

  13. Ummmm, YES. Faith definitely knows what she's talking about when it comes to torturing characters. Thou art the master. XD

    Great post! All these tips are soooo true and great to keep in mind. The pull to kill off characters in order to cause reader heartbreak really should be tamed - the importance of character deaths is an important importance indeed.

    Lila @ The Red-Hooded Writer

    1. *giggles awkwardly* ...and you ain't seen nothin' yet.

      Yes! I have one character whose death I am AGONIZING over. I don't know if I should...but at the same time I THINK I NEED TO?! I don't knoooowww :(

  14. "I think we writers are all sociopaths" So accurate, so sad.
    I don't WANT to be mean to my characters.... I feel guilty (MY POOR BABIES), but there has to be a plot...

    1. I know right?!

      YES!!!!!! It's so hard but it HAS TO HAPPEN xD


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