Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Why Writers Must Be Mean to Their Characters

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer 

Are you mean? Do you go out of your way to harm others? I doubt it—most of us are really nice to everyone we meet. But, regardless of how you treat people in real life, writers HAVE to be mean to our characters to tell their stories. Because, without conflict, characters don’t change.

Almost every story has a “mean moment,” where the protagonist has to face the devil inside to make the changes necessary to meet their goal. It often is a subtle moment, one that may not even be obvious to most people. But it is probably the most important moment in the entire story. 

Remember, the plot almost always starts with the main character wanting something (goal). They have an excellent reason for that need (motivation) and something to keep them from getting it (conflict). In a perfect world, the conflict comes from something within them—fear, anger, worry, etc.—which ultimately causes them to need that ah-ha moment of realization. So digging deep into your character’s psyche and allowing them to really experience the character arc can make a huge difference in your story.

How do we do that? By being mean!

Of course, different genres require different types of character arcs. The protagonist in a mystery or suspense novel probably doesn’t need to change a lot to solve the crime. It can happen, of course, especially when the villain and hero have a direct connection. For example, Clarise in Silence of the Lambs has to tell her story to Hannibal Lector to get the information she needs to save the senator’s daughter. By doing so, we see Clarise’s inner demons and why she is so fearful. Her determination to be the “good” agent has been there all along, but she needs to be almost dragged through her past to become one. In so many words, we had to be mean to her so she could meet her goal. 

Adventure stories also don’t need a huge character arc. But in Galaxy Quest, we watch Jason, who plays the “James T. Kirk” character, go through a transformation from jerk to leader in one scene, where he admits to Mathesar (the captain of the alien ship) that he’s lied to him the whole time. And Jason has to change. We had to be mean to him, to make him admit his weakness, for him to grow enough to save the day. 

Romance stories almost always have a Supreme Ordeal, as Joseph Campbell terms it, where the protagonists—hero and/or heroine—face those demons. In Pride and Prejudice, both Lizzie and Darcy have to make a change. Darcy is told, in no uncertain terms, that Lizzie loathes him and, as he says later, it made him realize that he had “been a selfish being all my life.” Lizzie also had to make an attitude change to see that Darcy was lovable. Jane Austen had to be mean to both of them for each to find happiness.

Being mean to your characters doesn’t mean that you want them to suffer. But suffering often brings change. We can give our characters a fatal flaw that holds them back. Clarise doesn’t think she can be an FBI agent. Why? Because of the wound from the past. Jason’s flaw is his arrogance. He’s been lauded for his acting role but his real life sucks. Darcy’s flaw is pride, of course, while Lizzie is prejudiced. 

Figuring out how to make that happen usually goes straight back to the plot. WHAT do they want? WHY do they want it? WHY can’t they have it? 

Let’s take a simple plot and see how mean we can be to a character:

Joe is an arrogant policeman who is trying to solve a murder case. (Goal—to find the murderer)

It’s his job to find the villain. (Motivation—he won’t get promoted)

Joe has made enemies in the department so no one will help him. (Conflict—he can't do it on his own)

The story starts with Joe believing he can find this criminal by himself. But no one in the department will have anything to do with him.

Now we get to be mean. He looks for clues, asks questions, goes through the forensic stuff, etc. But nothing makes sense. Usually at this point, another character—a mentor archetype—arrives and is assigned to him. Officer Susie becomes the change factor in the story even though arrogant Joe puts her down as often as possible. Scene after scene, he tries to do his job, but keeps running into obstacles—witnesses who won’t cooperate, for instance. But, eventually, Susie solves something he can’t or rescues him from his own stupidity. The Supreme Ordeal is when he finally—finally!—realizes that he does need help and she’s the one to make it happen. 

We’ll still need to be mean to him as he now recognizes his own weaknesses, but now he starts showing her—and others—some respect and they are more willing to cooperate. He’s changed and he reacts in different, and more considerate, ways and they find and capture the criminal.

Do you see how it works? It’s not truly about being mean. It’s more about lessons that our characters learn as they tell their stories. 

How about your characters? Are you being mean to them?


Sarah (Sally) Hamer, B.S., MLA, is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories and has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at WWW.MARGIELAWSON.COM. Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. You can find her at HAMERSE@BELLSOUTH.NET or WWW.SALLYHAMER.BLOGSPOT.COM


  1. Wow! Another home run, Sally It helped me think of a valuable addition to my sleuth’s arc when his own daughter confronts him about the relationship he’s missing with his grandson and likens it to the obstacle he’s avoiding in finding the serial killer. Thanks for this. Upstate, SC

  2. YAY!! So glad it helped! Always appreciate the comments.