ABC – Always Be Cruel (To Your Characters)

The following post is from our editor Paul W. Ryan’s author website. Should you wish to read the original, or check out his work, he can be found at

ABC – Always Be Cruel (To Your Characters)

You probably remember the classic line “Always Be Closing”. It was damn iconic. And if you haven’t seen Glengarry Glen Ross then go watch it. Or read this and watch it (please don’t leave me!)


Wel, I’m here to add a new writer’s rule, I too, like to call ABC – Always be Cruel (to your characters)

You might ask, “Can’t we all just get along?” or, “But my characters are so sweet and I could never do any harm to them.” It’s time to remember that in their world, you are a god. As a god, you can do whatever you want!

If you make it clear in your writing of the story that nothing too bad could possibly happen to your protagonist and a happy ending is already a foregone conclusion, then what’s the point in finishing the story?

Consider the formula for writing a short story, which is also relevant to how to write a tension-fulled scene.

You’ve probably seen these layout before. Nice and simply:

  1. A character is in a situation
  2. With a problem
  3. They try to solve the problem
  4. But fail, making it worse
  5. They make a final attempt, which may succeed or fail
  6. The consequence is not as expected

And then . . . well, why stop there?

As writers, it’s our job to chase our characters out of the village with sticks and stones, force them to cower up a tree for safety, and then light the tree on fire just for kicks. Yep, we’re sadistic, evil monsters, but hey, least this is only happening on paper, right? Right? 

It’s our goal to take away all hope and then find a way to give your protagonist a reason to hope again. Put them through absolute hell, but then give them a happy ending. Or sad ending if you truly are the devil incarnate. Here’s looking at you, George R.R Martin!

Below are some things to consider in your ABC – Always Be Cruel (to your characters)

Force them into choices. This one we see a lot in movies. Handled poorly, and it can feel forced or weak. My point here is to make sure both choices have positive and negative results. Saved the city from being blown up? Too bad. The terrorists are still on the loose. Destroyed the cursed evil squirrel king’s nuts? Too bad, he’s out there and really pissed.

Consider giving your protagonist two motives. They must sacrifice one to achieve the other. This can usually be sacrificing an internal goal for an external goal, such as the protagonist sacrificing their family or friend to save the world.

Characters’ flaws should hold them back. Their inner flaws should always become a barrier in getting what they want. Are they painfully shy but see the woman of their dreams across a crowded room? Do they fear heights and the villain lives atop a gigantic mountain? Be sure to craft situations where their inner flaws work against them. It will be much more rewarding to the reader when they conquer these flaws.

Murphy’s Law: We see it constantly in our day to day lives. Why not have your protagonist go through the same hell? Have their cell phone run out of battery while talking to a negotiator, forget their keys, stub their toe — whatever, to remind them that you’re the big, bad ruler here, and they are just your playtoys.

Drawbacks on plot items. This one works best in fantasy or sci-fi, but can also be relevant in each genre. Is the phone they’re using tapped? Does the pyromancer’s power come from his/her own body heat? Think of Frodo’s ring for a classic example. It grants the gift of invisibility, but wouldn’t you know it? It also makes you visible to ring wraiths who are deathly curious to see what your head looks like removed from your body. Imagine what Lightsabers would be like if they had a drawback e.g. soul energy or anger to fuel it. Would add another layer to those overpowered items.

Characters’ decisions are bad. As people, we often make bad decisions we later regret. We do or say something we didn’t mean, or are caught on a bad day. Make your characters do the same. Not everything they do or say needs to be heroic. They’re supposed to be human, too. Make them do or say the wrong thing every once in a while.

Your characters should be wrong sometimes. This one relates to the above point. Whether they were tricked or knew it was wrong, let them do it and be sure to punish the character for the bad choice. Don’t just let them do what they want without punishment. A bad action deserves punishment. Take away a powerful item from a character. Have their companions leave them. Be cruel. Don’t let your jerk of a character away with it (even if it was you who forced him/her to say it!)

Once you base each scene upon these ideas, things are bound to escalate for your protagonist/s (cue evil laughter).

So don’t forget your ABC (Always be Cruel). Just, try to limit this to your character, okay? So how do you like to torment your characters? Let me know in the comments below, all you sick evil geniuses.

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