Death Is Not the Worst Thing

At least not in storytelling it isn’t. If you’ve read any of his books or attended any of his workshops, you know this is a big point of Donald Maass. How can you make it worse?

Part of our job as writers is to torture our poor protagonists and often their friends and family as well. Sometimes we hesitate to take our stories to the level it needs to be because we like our protagonists. Why let them suffer so much?

Because it doesn’t make for a good story. Sorry, that’s the rub.

We like stories because we like to see conflict overcome. Triumph attained. Some kind of new understanding gleaned. In my opinion this is because we hope those issues in our own lives will come to some kind of catharsis in our lives or just a resolution that makes sense. So it’s relieving to read about others’ troubles and trials because typically stories have a resolution, whereas our lives may continue on troubled for some time.

That’s why what our protagonist is after should be harder and harder to attain the further we get into our story. Something should keep getting in their way, and each time something does it should make things worse.

Since hearing the advice, how can you make it worse for your character, I’ve come to new ideas I’m not sure I would have come up with otherwise. But the other side of that is remembering, death is not the worst thing. For our main characters, death must be off the table—as a result, not as a fear.

Firstly, if your protagonist dies, end of story—unless of course you’re doing some freaky ghost realm back and forth story. But when I say death, I mean no longer available to act in your story. Also, death can often merciful for a character. They can no longer be tortured, whether physically or mentally, by something.

When we’re crafting story, remember death is not the worst thing.

Do you torture your poor protagonists? Do you try and apply the “how can I make it worse” principle? Or has this philosophy helped spark any new ideas for your story? Have you read any Donald Maass or listened to him? Anything you would add?

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20 thoughts on “Death Is Not the Worst Thing

  1. I am a torture master, for sure. I’ve always been like that with my characters, even when I first started writing as a child. I don’t know what that says about me (haha…*nervous laughter*) but I don’t consider my writing worthwhile if I haven’t tortured the ever-living hell out of my characters, both physically and emotionally.

    That said, I haven’t read any Donald Maass, but I’m interested now…thanks for sharing!

    • I know. I’m glad our characters can’t come and find us. We’d be in soooo much trouble. (Say, great idea for a story, lol).

      I think you’ll enjoy Donald Maass. I believe some of his books are available via the Amazon Lending Library if you’ve got that. 🙂

  2. Great obstacles make great characters. I remember when I was subjected to reading Robinson Crusoe for a class I was frustrated and started drawing little cartoons in the margins about how the island he lands on is the “Island of Great Convenience.” I think it had a Walmart on the far side… and this was before Walmart existed.

    As for killing off a protagonist – it doesn’t have to be the end of the book. It could be an awesome twist a large chunk through, and then a prominent side-character takes over and becomes the protagonist. Brandon Sanderson did this successfully in one of his novels.

    • I think it can definitely work, like you’ve said, but for a first novel sometimes it’s good to stick to the fundamentals. As long as we understand the rules, it’s only then it’s okay to break it (but I doubt I’m telling you anything you don’t already know).

      Lol, Island of Great Convenience. ^_^

    • Interesting how we see that people grow when subjected to difficulties. Being a writer always brings me lots of insights about life. Have you found you have the same experience?

  3. Every now and then I feel kind of bad for all the things I’ve put my hero through, particularly since some of them happened without me having even planned them! But then I remember it’s all for the good of the spry and I stop feeling guilty.

  4. Love Donald Maass! I remember when he had us all do that writing exercise at the conference, and it seemed like half the audience ended up with dead characters. He really did a great job of driving home the point that that’s not really the worst thing, and I’ve definitely thought a lot about it since. Great reminder! 🙂

    • I knew he would say something about if they’re dead you’re not being creative enough. Guess I’ve read too many books where I’ve thought “death would be a relief for this poor character.” 😉 Yeah, that little workshop with Mr. Maass was awesome. Changed my whole perspective!

  5. Interesting post! I’ve killed off side characters, people important to the protagonist, but not the protagonist. As a reader, I can only handle a certain amount of death in a book, and I tend to dislike books that kill off the main character unless it’s for a big reason (and not a cop-out).

    • In writing it seems killing people off is the easy way out—not that it’s always a wrong choice, but like you said it has to be for a good reason. In Shade I had a character whom I killed off in the first few chapters, but when revising he kept demanding he come back to life. I tried reasoning with him in my mind saying, but you’re motivation for my protagonist. Nope, he wouldn’t listen. So he’s alive and it’s changed things, but in a different, good way.

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