Setting up a character to fail

Have you ever been watching a show or reading a book, when something terrible happens to a character? And you just can’t stop laughing?

This usually because this character has been set up to suffer and you know that it’s coming. You even want it to happen. It can be a bad guy, but more often it’s a good guy who’s experiencing a momentary fit of assholery. It’s a lot of fun to read, and a lot of fun to write. So we’re going to talk today about setting up a character to suffer.

Make them deserve it.

Suffering is the root of all humor. Usually, other people’s suffering, unless you’ve had time to heal. But suffering is always funnier when you don’t feel sympathetic for the person who’s suffering.

Make other characters warn them

Suffering is also funnier when the person who suffers is being oblivious. If you have a smarter character, this is the time they should try to warn the impending victim. Have someone tell them that something bad’s coming their way, but maybe not how it’s coming. Better to simply have someone in the know behave in a worried manner. Extra points if the impending victim is unpleasant to their would-be protector.

Make it not the main character’s fault

I’m assuming that you want your main character to be likable. Even if they’re an antihero, your reader should still like them.

A reader will like someone who does bad things to good people. But a reader will not like someone who picks on an easy target. And when you’re setting up someone to suffer, they’re a truly easy target.

Make it poetic justice

Setting up someone to suffer works best when the punishment makes sense. Poetic justice is almost always funny. Like the urban legend about the hunter who throws a stick of dynamite, only to have his dog retrieve it for him. Or the person who steals what they think is a shopping bag of gifts from an old woman on the bus, only to find it was a dead cat the lady was taking to the country to bury. A lot of urban legends deal with poetic justice, and for good reason. It’s funny and satisfying. We all love a good example of Karma, after all.

At least so long as it’s not biting us.

Why does this still work, even though its telegraphed?

Up until now, one thing has been pretty clear, setting up someone to suffer is usually not subtle. You can see it coming like a heavy lady in stretch pants. So, why, is it fun, when we know it’s happening?

Part of it is making sure that the person deserves it, as we discussed above. But the other part is that there is an element of surprise. We know that something bad is going to happen to this character. That’s not in question. The question is, how are they going to suffer? They’re going to get it in the neck, sure, but how?

Lending a spark of comedy in any story is useful. Setting up someone to suffer can help get a laugh out of any genre.

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