I’m well aware that that title might catch you off guard, given the language. But “Why Your Character Should do bad Things” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. Having worked in politics and advertising, I can talk like a sailor, too. So today, let’s talk about why your character should do shitty things, how it makes them more relatable, and what you can do to make these shitty things.
I’m currently at the end of my draft for Justice & Lies, which means that the bodies are starting to pile up (I write mystery books, so it’s totally okay). Over the weekend, I put my main character and a co-worker in a bad situation where they had to make some shitty choices. We’re talking life-ending shitty choices. I’m not going say any more on that, but it got me thinking.
We always talk about why we need relatable characters, but many writers are afraid to make their characters do awful things. We want our characters to be perfect. They can’t do bad things. We’re afraid to let our characters be human.
Let’s face it, human beings can do some awful things. Cheating, stealing, betraying, murdering, we can do some pretty shitty things. If the realistic, relatable character is the end goal, they need to be a human.
In the same way your villain can redeem himself with good deeds, your main character can do shitty things and fall. But wait! You’re probably thinking “if my character does shitty things, no one will relate or like my character!”
Ah, no true.
We have friends who have done not so awesome things, and we still love them, right?
Why Your Character Should Do Shitty Things
Let’s talk about the why first. Where can I start? It makes them relatable, it grounds them, and it causes conflict.
As I mentioned before, by doing awful things, our characters are more rounded, like actual human beings, and we can relate to them more. One of my favorite things about Justice & Lies (the book I’m currently working on) is that I’m really making certain characters make some awful choices. The moral lines are blurred, especially in the end of the book.
Doing shitty things can also ground your characters when they realize the consequences of what they’ve done. A character in this book kills a person, and while the character isn’t in the scene at the moment, I’m really looking forward to going back and exploring the reactions he faces – both of his own guilt and what happens to his job.
But one of the biggest reasons you should make your characters do shitty things is because shitty things create conflict. And you have no story if you have no conflict.
Now when it comes to what shitty thing your character should do, think of it in the context of your story.
A character doing something awful in a romance novel is going to be different than a character doing something awful in a mystery or thriller story. Whether it’s an affair or a killing someone, those both have heavy consequences for the characters.
You want your character’s actions to be realistic to the story and to the character. When my character kills someone in the story, it makes sense because he’s an FBI agent in a difficult situation. It needs to make sense for the story.
Whenever you do commit some kind of shitty action on behalf of your character, make sure it’s realistic and make sure the consequences are realistic.
What kind of “shitty” things could you character realistically do?