When was the last time you read a book or watched a movie where 1) at least one of the main character’s parents is dead, 2) dies suddenly, or 3) is slowly dying over the course of the movie. Chances are, that was pretty recently — painfully recently. When they want to give their character hardship or a tragic origin story, too many writers will knock off a parent or two and call it good. But that’s just not good enough, and cliche to boot. Even Disney latest princess movie, Moana, featured two very-much-alive parents (sure, the grandmother died, but hey, at least they’re making progress?). There are all kinds of creative and realistic ways to torment your characters, so get out there are write something original for once!
Homelessness can be an enormous source of embarrassment and shame for your character. Maybe they live in a shelter, maybe it’s on the streets — that’s up to the setting of your story to decide. How long have they been homeless? Sudden homelessness can be the inciting incident of the story, but maybe they’ve been homeless for a long time before the story begins. Maybe they’re homeless throughout the whole story. Why are they homeless? According to housing for the homeless advocates, homelessness stems from a variety of reasons, including a low-paying job, lack of affordable housing, substance abuse, mental illness, racism, and domestic violence. Consider how the circumstances of their living situation affects your character’s personality and outlook on life. Vin in Mistborn: The Final Empire is a good example of a character who has been shaped by the instability of homelessness.
Hunger and homelessness often go hand-in-hand, although hunger can happen without homelessness, as happens in cases of extreme poverty. How do they get food? From a local soup kitchen, or maybe something less legal? Hunger is capable of driving a person to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, from scavenging in the trash to actively stealing, and in some cases, murder. Have you ever been “hangry”? Your character may be like that — constantly. Or maybe they don’t have enough energy to care anymore. Psychological experts state that low food security and hunger contribute to toxic stress, limited cognitive bandwidth, greater vulnerability to illness, and feelings of deep shame and low self esteem. Also consider what survival skills have they developed as a result? Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games trilogy is a good example of a character who has been shaped by hunger.
Your character might have a parent who is out of the picture due to massive gambling debts. Maybe the main character him/herself is in huge debt. Bankruptcy experts point out that the symptoms of severe financial peril may include getting harassed by near constant calls from collectors, making late payments on bills or being consistently unable to pay them, and being on the brink of losing your home. Financial problems don’t have to mean that the character is necessarily poor, either. It can affect anyone — they could be a seemingly-successful businessperson living in sunny Southern California with a mansion and a closet full of designer clothes. The loan shark could be a regular looking person, too. Instead of broken kneecaps, the loan shark could taunt your character with the threat of an infestation of bedbugs at his upscale hotel. Consider how living with this threat shapes your character’s approach to life, and how that may conflict with the lifestyle that got them into this mess. Buran in Seven Daughters and Seven Sons is a good example of a character whose financial hardships push them into the rest of the story.
Maybe your character has a parent in jail, or maybe they’re the ones in jail. Did this incarceration happen before the story? During the story? Having a parent who is incarcerated could be a close second to death for your character. They might even wish the parent was truly dead. That would be easier to explain. Also consider the reason behind the incarceration. Drugs? Rape? Murder? Or are they innocent? The reason why they’re in jail can be just as important as the fact itself. And consider how this incarceration affects their relationships with other people, as well as they way that they view themselves. If your main character is a felon, second chance advocates point out that they’re likely to have trouble finding a job, obtaining an occupational license, finding stable housing, and even receiving government assistance. Stanley Yelnats in Holes is a good example of a character whose nontraditional incarceration situation drives the plot of the story, as well as his own character development.
It’s 2019 — stop with the dead parents already! There are so many better ways to ruin your main character’s life, whether it happened in the past, the present, or happened to someone close to them. Maim them. Paralyze them. Break their heart. Betray them. Slap them with an unexpected pregnancy. Get them laid off from their job. Give them a mental illness. Let them be a victim of abuse. The list goes on — and don’t forget that you can give your character more than one trial. But above all, make it meaningful. Unless your name is Lemony Snicket and you’re writing a sequel to A Series of Unfortunate Events, throwing in misfortune after misfortune can turn your epic novel into a soap opera.
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