If I was allowed only one piece of rewriting advice, it would be this one: Be harder on your characters. In fact, be ruthless. As writers, we continually pull back from ripping the rug out from underneath our characters for two reasons.
The first reason is a trap into which I step most every time: I fall in love with the main character and don’t want to see him or her get put through the wringer. I wrote a script once where the main character flipped out at his workplace and ended up getting suspended from his job for a couple of days. A friend read the first draft of the script and said, ‘Suspended? Why don’t you fire the guy? It’s a much better choice, more dramatic, and it creates more conflict.” He was right! I realized I was letting a lot of great story opportunities slide by because I liked the guy so much. Don’t let your love for your characters cause you to go easy on them.
The second reason we pull back is because the harder we are on our characters, the harder we are on ourselves, because as the writers, we have to think up smart and rational ways out of the problems we create. The more difficult the circumstances for the characters in the story, the more creativity it takes to untangle the problems.
Given being brutal to our characters creates problems for us as writers, why is it so important? Because the more challenging and devastating are the circumstances for the character, the more satisfying is the journey for the audience (#1! Keep the audience in mind.) Think of your favorite films. Are they benign, laidback rides? Or do the characters, whatever the genre, even be it a romantic comedy, get put through the wringer and have to struggle their way back?
My favorite examples are two outstanding films that are wildly different movies: Tootsieand Aliens.
In both movies — Tootsie one of the best screen comedies of all time, Aliens an absolutely gut-wrenching horror/action-thriller that is one of the best sequels of all time — the main characters, Michael Dorsey and Ellen Ripley, are step by step sent to absolute hell. Every time each character turns a corner, the absolute worst thing that could happen happens. And then happens again. When you think things simply can’t get any worse? Oh my, does it get worse!
Towards the end of Tootsie, for instance, there is a long series of events that occurs in a single night where Michael is thrown into horrible situations, each one cumulatively worse than the last. At one point he even says out loud, “This is a nightmare” yet the comic horrors continue to mount. It’s a dazzling display of pummeling the main character, made satisfying because he needs his comeuppance and also because it is uproariously funny.
In Aliens there is a long, slow buildup filled with intense dread, a wind up of sorts that finally launches with the appearance of the aliens themselves. Ripley and her companions then go on a relentless journey where each situation either figuratively or literally blows up in their faces. No one is spared. One great example is when Newt, the young girl, slides down an air vent, away from Ripley and Hicks, who race off to find her. When the movie shock cuts to Newt, the audience literally groans out loud in the theatre with fear, because we find Newt… chest deep in water! And of course, the worst thing that can happen does:
This is not even yet near the end, many more terrible things happen in the film, cumulating for Ripley in one of the great physical battles of all time.
In each film, it takes a lot of creativity and finesse for the writers to enable the hero to believably triumph. This creativity pays off enormously. Because the circumstances the writers come up with are so grueling, because each character endures the struggle and believably succeeds, each film is an incredibly satisfying ride for the audience. Hence the enduring popularity of both films.
A more recent movie I love that is also beautifully brutal to the main characters is Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol (woo hoo, Brad Bird!).
Everything, and I mean everything, that can go wrong for our team goes wrong. And then goes wrong again. And when you think it can’t get any worse? Oh my, do things go horribly wrong again! Take just the extended sequence in Dubai, pictured above. These are efficient, smart, highly capable people yet everything goes terribly awry at every possible moment. Which forces the characters, i.e. the screenwriters, to be extremely creative in figuring out satisfying ways to thwart the villains. This means no cheating. Or leaping from “A” to “C” without figuring out “B”. When the circumstances as created are as difficult as any noted above, this is tough to do! So we often pull back thinking, “Well, it would be cool if the detonator actually went off! But then I have no idea what I could do to fix everything… so the detonator can’t go off.” When we think this way, our stories suffer for it.
Yes, being hard on your characters will make your writing life tough. You yourself may get a little nauseous experiencing the hell along with your characters. But your story will be so much the better for it and so much more rewarding for the audience. So when you rewrite, go after your characters with a mallet. Brutalize them, send them to hell. Both your characters and your story will be the better for it.