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Characters to Cry For

Why the best tragedies are character driven

I always think of myself as someone who prizes comic over tragic fiction. Life is too short to cry, I tell myself, which is why I love PG Wodehouse and EF Benson, why I look out for anything written by Nina Stibbes and why, last year, I bought everyone I know a copy of Andrew Sean Greer's fabulously funny Less. Imagine, then, how surprised I was, when teaching a recent class on Writing Sad Stories, I found I couldn't stop listing examples of sad books that I adore. I'm always on the lookout for books that move me, but I hadn't realised I'd read and loved so many.

My tragic favourites include classics Wuthering Heights and Tess of the D'Urbervilles; modern masterpieces Tin Man, Spill Simmer Falter Wither and Love After Love; picture book sob-fest Goodbye Mog; children's books A Friend For Dragon (which I'm not sure is supposed to make anyone cry as much as it makes me!), The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (ditto) and A Monster Calls; YA novel Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock and the unusual cut out book Love.

There are dozens more but I wanted to highlight these few because the subject matters in them are so varied, as are the genres and the age of target readers. But, what they all have in common, and what my lesson on Writing Sad Stories focused on, was the importance in each of character. Whether it's a little blue dragon befriending an apple or a lonely man struggling to contain his grief, a dead pet watching its fluffy replacement or a boy punishing himself for wanting his terminally ill mum to die, each character in the above books is so well created, so perfectly drawn that a reader can't help but be pulled in and taken along with them on their saddest journey. They are all character driven stories.

And that's the thing to focus on when writing a sad or poignant story of your own. Create an engaging and sympathetic character before you come up with the tragedies they will experience. Whether boy, woman, cat or dragon, your sad story will only work if the reader cares intensely about who the sad events happen to. A reader needs to like (or love) and care about the characters, so much so that they're in floods of tears when it seems they might not survive what life (the writer) throws at them. If your character hasn't been carefully drawn, your tragedy won't have the impact you were hoping for.


Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte,

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy,

Tin Man by Sarah Winman,

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume,

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud,

Goodbye Mog by Judith Kerr,

A Friend for Dragon by Dav Pilkey,

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo,

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness,

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, by Matthew Quick,

Love by Lowell A Siff and Vanni


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