Tough Love is an expression dating back to a book by the same name, written by Bill Milliken, and published in 1968. It refers to the practice of being overly strict or acting harshly toward someone you care about in hopes of helping them make positive changes. From the start, tough love was a controversial topic, and is effectiveness on children or other loved ones is debatable. I do occasionally hear it mentioned among folks of my generation.
I was thinking about tough love recently as I worked on “No Regrets”, the fourth book of my Sunset Series of western love stories. I care very much about Hattie Mae Richards, Willie Morse, and the other characters who live in my fictional little town of Sunset, Colorado, but I can’t make their lives too easy. In fact, as an author, it’s my job to make Hattie Mae, Willie, and the rest of my characters as miserable as possible!
For good cause, of course.
Conflict is the driving force behind satisfying stories. Characters need goals and motivations. Even more, they need obstacles that stand in their way. They need challenges; they need problems. Yes, I think as often as not, they need a bit of tough love.
As a member of the Lovestory group on the Internet Writing Workshop, I critique many different romance stories — from short shorts to epic novels. The IWW includes writers at every stage of the learning process. Some are penning their first tales; others have been writing for years and have multiple publishing credits. We share thoughts, exchange ideas, and learn a lot from one another in the process.
What I often see in reading and critiquing is a tendency for authors to be “too nice” to their characters. They give them kind, compassionate qualities — after all, readers must like them, right? They fill their characters’ worlds with friends and loving family members who are always there to offer support and encouragement.
They never allow their characters to fail.
Although these writers may set goals for their characters, they quickly step in to provide easy ways for them to achieve the objectives. They fill their stories with sunny days, smiling faces, and lots of pleasant talk. Their characters help one another when problems arise. They’re hopeful, always offering assurances that everything will be fine.
We’d all like to live in a world like that, right?
Yes, but fictional worlds are built not for the comfort of our characters but for their discomfort. Stories are about growth and change, about mistakes made and lessons learned. If characters are happy, smiling, and content with their lot in life, what incentive do they have to pursue any goals?
The characters who are most memorable, I think, are the ones who are the most miserable. The ones we care most about are the ones who fight the hardest against the hard knocks of life, the ones who fall down often, but who find the strength to pick themselves up and try again.
In writing, we’ve got to be tough. As I put scenes together, I have to ask myself, “What can I do to make the situation worse?” I have to make my characters hurt. I have to break their hearts and make them cry. I have to throw one hardship after another at them and watch them struggle.
They must struggle. Ultimately struggle leads to strength. One by one, weaknesses are overcome, and I celebrate as the characters in my stories learn that happiness comes from within, that they are worthy of love, and that no matter what mistakes they’ve made in the past, they can find forgiveness.
It’s tough. But I do it because I love them.