Weekend Writing Workout: Creating Undeserved Misfortune

NaNo Goal Today: 2,000 words
Words Actually Completed Today: 1,870
Total Words to Date: 10,617

Aristotle says the most sympathetic characters are those who bring about their own undeserved misfortune.

Let’s start with your sympathetic characters.

I believe characters should be messy (wounded and imperfect). So our protagonist should start out as a loveable mess. He’s a misogynist. She’s shallow. He’s an alcoholic. She works too hard. These are things we can relate to. They’re “human.” (this works even if your character is an animal, vegetable, or alien)

But how do we make our readers care about them if they are, say, JERKS to those around them? They are imperfect, yes, but there’s something about them. They’re smart or funny or talented (we like those things). Or we show them acting in a humane way to demonstrate they have heart. He helps an old lady across the street. She feeds the alley cats. He stands up for a boy who’s being picked on. She cries in her office when she hear her little girl needs counseling.

That’s how we know that when misfortune falls on them, they don’t deserve it, because they are essentially good at heart (and striving towards goodness). If they create their own misfortune because of their “fatal flaw” then we sympathize even more and it means something when they redeem themselves.

In my NaNo novel Intergalactic my main character is moody, self-absorbed, and insulting to her crew. But underneath it all we know she’s scared of her waning popularity. There are little moments where this shows up. But eventually, her selfish choices are going to land her in a heap of trouble: stranded in the middle of an interplanetary war without the people (well, robots and aliens) she has taken for granted.

If you’re working on your NaNo novel, or anything else for that matter, take a moment out to think about whether you’ve made your character a loveable mess. Now, how can the mess that they are contribute to their downfall and the reversal of that lead to their redemption?

Your Workout:

Set your timer for 5-7 minutes and free write (you know the drill, no crossing out, no editing, no judging) using the following startlines:

My protagonist’s wound looks like . . .

My protagonist wants forgiveness for . . .

The cage my protagonist lives in was formed when  . . .

My protagonist thinks if only . . . then . . .

When my protagonist reaches his/her lowest point, redemption lies in . . .

Have a great weekend!


  1. Barbara Watson
    Nov 4, 2011

    A loveable mess–I love that! And the writing prompt of ‘my character thinks if only…then…’ is really, really helpful. Thank you for the great insight!

  2. Hi Barbara!

    Yes, can’t we ALL relate to “if only. . .”

    When I think about all my favorite characters, they are all lovable messes. 🙂 Actually, some of my favorite real life humans are, too.

  3. Deb Marshall
    Nov 7, 2011

    Night Fairy was recommended to me a while back and I never got around to reading it. I think I need to get around to reading it!

    Way. to. go. on Nano!! I am at just under 7000, hoping to get in some major writing time today.

  4. Shannon O'Donnell
    Nov 7, 2011

    I love the way you broke it down–GREAT post!! And I wholeheartedly agree with you that The Book of Lost Things is most definitely NOT for younger readers.Way too complex and disturbingly creepy and dark.

  5. @Deb and Shannon – I think you meant to comment on the previous post.

    Deb – Night Fairy is sweet. A little young for my tastes.

    Shannon – I started reading The Book of Lost Things because of the title and cover. I knew nothing about it but was in love by the 3rd page. maybe sooner. No spoilers! I’m not done yet.

  6. brooke Favero
    Nov 7, 2011

    These are all great picks. I’ll have to get The Night Fairy for my girls. Ich bin impressed on your word count. Keep going, good luck.


  1. Holiday Writing Workout: Yay Mess! | The Accidental Novelist (Writes Again) - [...] Make them BRING ABOUT THEIR OWN UNDESERVED MISFORTUNE [...]

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