In good stories, it is not out of the ordinary to come across that one character that breaks your heart. We have all seen and loved these characters in popular culture- right from DJ and Karan in Rang De Basanti, to Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, to even Mufasa from The Lion King. The arc of these characters teaches you the themes of the text, moves the plot forward, and reminds you to be thankful for the direction the other characters are driven in. The reader’s arc (their experience and what they take back from the story) is deeply affected by the journeys of these characters. Often, it is hard to create this character without causing a dent in your plot, or changing the atmosphere that you worked so hard to create. Here are five failsafe ways to create the perfect heartbreaking character:
Rule number one: A reason to kill the character.
Killing a character that you want your audience to ally with is usually an excellent way to cause pain to your reader’s literary soul. However, to truly do the job, having a reason or a “lesson” for your readers will strengthen the blow. Even if you want to create the understanding that there is no sense in death, that is your lesson right there. Knowing why and what you want to convey by killing the character before you even begin writing will create clarity and help enforce the themes of your story.
Rule number two: Consequences of “the tragedy.”
Once you’ve broken your reader’s heart by either killing, torturing, changing a character’s comfortable setting completely or whatever method of tragedy you choose, it is important that the effects of “the tragedy” reverberate throughout different aspects of the story. For instance, if the character you want your readers to love is killed, it is important to remind your audience how his or her death affected the other characters whether it be a positive or negative reaction. It might even be a good idea to give them insight into what the plot might have been like if that character were still around, just to show them how deeply it influenced the plot. If the consequences of the tragedy fail to echo through each of the literary features of your story, it’s safe to say that the character will not truly make anyone’s heart ache.
Rule number three: Don’t be afraid of flaws.
While writing a character you want your readers to love, it is hard to express their flaws. While writing this character, making your audience aware of the character’s flaws can often help in the process of breaking their heart. The tragic hero, an age old literary concept, is usually endowed with a fatal flaw that usually leads to his or her death. Even Achilles, the invincible Greek hero, had a weak ankle that led to his downfall. Giving your character faults often makes him or her more tangible to the reader. Giving them real flaws (not the self-deprecating, undervaluing hero that we have all known and loved before), but borderline narcissism, or slight selfishness, or even something as simple as impatience can make your tragic hero more relatable. When the time comes, this aids in increasing their misery when you hit them with any mishap that falls upon your character.
Rule number four: Challenging a well-established character trope.
While killing a character is an exemplary way to break a reader’s heart, challenging something that the reader believes to already know can hurt them as well. The hero, the star-crossed lovers, the loyal companion, the redeemable evil figure with ultimately good intentions and the true villain are all common archetypes that a reader has been familiarized with through several different types of media. Introducing one of these character archetypes puts the reader on a path that they feel like they have already walked through several times. George R.R. Martin has mastered this technique in his bestselling series A Song of Ice and Fire. He introduces characters like Robb Stark as a protagonist, puts the reader on hero’s path (something that they have know and love already), and challenges the archetype with an unexpected death.
Rule number five: Knowledge is as dangerous and powerful as fire. Play with it.
Another interesting method to break a reader’s heart is to play with the knowledge of the character’s tragedy. Foreshadowing is a common literary device that gives you little clues about what is coming next without revealing too much. Setting up what’s coming later in the plot can be an extremely useful in creating the atmosphere you want when the plot actually does play out.
This method is displayed beautifully in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. A story narrated by death, about death, the audience expects death throughout the novel but still resists it when it finally plays out.
These are failsafe methods that have been used successfully to break hearts. While they are useful to keep in mind, that does not necessarily mean that these rules are the only way to break a reader’s heart. If you love your character for whomever he or she is, and your plot puts them on journey that breaks your heart, it is likely that it is going to do the same for your readers (albeit assuming that your writing is clear and that your plot is organized). Go ahead, write your story, break hearts, convey themes and leave your readers with a character that they hate to love.