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Are You (s)Mothering Your Characters?

I just finished a scene for Liberty in my Citizens of Logan Pond trilogy. The scene ended with an emotional moment. I was tired and walked away before I’d completely polished it off, figuring I’d do that this morning. But this morning, I realized what I wanted to do and where I thought it needed  polishing:

I wanted to go in and comfort my main character.

She just lost someone important to her, and she was hurting badly. I wanted to come up with something in that moment to ease her pain. Either a memory. A person. A sudden burst of hope for the future.

In short, I was mothering her. She was hurting. I wanted to swoop in and put a band-aid on it. As soon as I realized what I was about to do, I stopped. And then I realized how often I do this with my characters.

Here’s how it happens for me:

Characters need conflict. That’s been pounded into me long enough. So I write a scene with awesome conflict, and my character is hurting, and things are going great! Sounds horrible, but hopefully you know what I mean. Then the mother in me kicks in, like a background fail-safe program:

Warning. Warning.

Someone is hurting.

Must.

Fix. 

So I throw in a little teddy bear here, a comforting hug there, and before I know it, I’ve completely smothered the conflict. And my character.


As a mom, I understand tough love.

I don’t pick up my one-year-old every time they fall and help them back on their feet. If I did, they’d never learn to walk. The falling helps them learn as much as the actual walking does.

I don’t rush in with my teenagers every time they have friend issues or girl drama. In fact, I avoid it unless absolutely necessary.

It’s better to let my kids solve their own problems as much as possible. Not only does this build their self-esteem, but it makes them stronger and more prepared for the next set of issues that come their way when I might not be there to swoop in and save the day.

In short, I want my kids to be their own heroes.

So why in the world am I not letting my characters have the same opportunity?

As of today, I’m in the process of creating a mental warning list so I know when I’m overstepping my bounds from author to mother bear.

If you have any ideas to add, comment below, and I’ll add them to the list.

1) Is someone else rescuing your hero?

Does someone sweep in when the money runs out? Pull out a weapon when the hero falls? Tell a joke when your character is down in the dumps? Call the principal when the bully gets too bully-ish? Some of this is okay, but beware if it’s always someone else doing the saving.

Your hero needs to be the hero. Give them a chance to save themselves some of the time.

THIS IS ESPECIALLY TRUE IN THE CLIMAX.

Example: The old Disney classic, Sleeping Beauty. She’s asleep, so the prince comes in, fights the dragon, cuts down thorn bushes, and saves her with a kiss. This would all be fine and dandy if he was the main character. He’s not. She is. So unless you’re purposely writing a Damsel in Distress story, let your character save their own hide. Or at least let them help defeat the dragon.

(By the way, Sleeping Beauty is my all-time favorite Disney princess story, so apparently I enjoy the DID kind of thing. I’m just not sure modern-day readers will put up with it.)

An exception: Your character’s flaw might be that they’re spineless. They might rely on others to solve their problems. That’s fine. I have one of those characters. Just make it obvious up front, and then give them small baby steps to learn to help themselves so that, BAM, by the climax, they’re not only saving themselves, but they’re saving a few others, too. Like Diary of the Wimpy Kid.

2) Is something arbitrary easing the blow?

Cue an old Bugs Bunny episode. Like when Bugs or the Road Runner are in trouble and, lo and behold, a random anvil magically appears right behind them at the perfect moment to toss on someone’s head. 

Beware of “Lo and behold!” moments.

It’s cheating your character (and your reader) out of a potential moment of growth and ingenuity. Plus, it’s implausible for most genres–Bugs Bunny excluded.

Example: When the bad guy raises the gun to fire off a shot and, lo and behold, the gun chamber is empty. First. Time. Ever. Whew! That was a close one. And also a cop out way to save your hero. Instead have the hero deflect the blow, roll, or DO something.

Which leads to…

3) Is your hero proactive in their own story?

Proactive characters are interesting. Unless they’re spineless (see above) they need to be solving their own problems, getting up when they fall, and pushing through the pain so they can deal with things in their own, unique way.

Stop saving them.

Stop (s)mothering them.

Example: I have a character who has issues confronting people. This makes it hard for her to solve people-related problems. It’s tempting to surround her with nice people so she doesn’t feel so emotionally beat up all the time. But now I know that’s a cop out. I could have her confront those who are bullying her, but that’s not realistic or true to her character.

Instead, I have her tackling the problem itself–a lack of supplies–and then telling the enraged people about her solution. This makes her proactive while staying true to her introverted, confrontation-avoiding personality.

4) Does your character fail in at least one thing?

If not, they’re no longer human. They’re a cardboard box. You’re smothering them.

Give them flaws. Let them fall and scrape their knees. Let it hurt, too. Give them motivation to change.

5) In short, are you softening the blow or the conflict in any way?

If so, you’re not just taking away strength from your hero, you’re taking away strength from the bad guy, too. You’re flattening your story. So don’t do it.

Example: The first time I read the Hunger Game series, I was so incensed by the bad guys, I wanted to jump into the story and start a revolution myself. I didn’t have to. Katniss did. But this deep rage Suzanne Collins stirred inside me as a reader came because she didn’t soften the blows from the Capital. She didn’t swoop down and save Katniss or Peeta or anyone else. It made for one powerful series, and Katniss is now considered one of the strongest female characters out there.

So that’s what I figured out today. It’s okay to let my character hurt with no relief. She’ll eventually stand up, brush herself off, and find a way to fix the problem herself. I’m letting her despair for a little while now so she’ll be motivated to get up and change her world.

Which is exactly what I want her to do.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? What ideas do you have to keep you from (s)mothering your characters? Comment here.

Are You (s)Mothering Your Characters, by Rebecca Belliston
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