The Art of Giving Your Character Hell

Stories thrive on tension, severe curves, and metaphorical runaway trains.  We all know this.  Boring stories get tossed in dusty corners or relegated to holding up the short leg of a coffee table, and so the only way to ensure our stories get to the stage of beloved books falling apart at the seams from so many reads is to give our characters hell.

It’s one thing to know that, another entirely to understand and put it into motion.  For me, most times its an issue of digging deep into things that I fucking hate to go through instead of turning to a tried and true- but oh so boring- trope.  It all boils down to kicking down doors to places that hurt as well as thinking out of the box.

Today I want to share something of the latter with you.  Because, honestly, you can’t get much more out of the box than this, and it’s not even fiction.

Elmer McCurdy, shitty train robber, excellent side show attraction.

Meet Elmer McCurdy.  In 1911 he and his gang decided to rob a train containing a safe, because, hey, they weren’t doing anything else that day.  Why not?  Only the train they had pegged for the robbery was running a couple hours late and they hit a train wasn’t near so flush.  McCurdy and his boys made off with $46 and two bottles of whiskey.

Anyway, that kind of ticked the local posse off and they went after Elmer.  Upon confrontation, Elmer shouted, “You’ll never take me alive!” and, long story short, he was right.  Elmer died in the ensuing shoot out.

Now, you might think that would be all there was to his story, seeing as Elmer was then all corpse-ified, but this is actually where things take a turn into weird and morbidly interesting, which just goes to show that someone need not even be alive to have a tale that keeps people enthralled.

Elmer went to the undertaker.  After preserving the outlaw and, when no one stepped forward to claim the body, the undertaker decided to put the ‘Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up’ to work as a local attraction.  For the price of a nickel (which visitors inserted into Elmer’s open mouth and the undertaker later retrieved) people could oggle the dead guy for a bit before they went back to their daily lives.

Many traveling acts and approached the undertaker about buying McCurdy for their side shows, but he refused.  Why give up a steady income, after all.  But in 1915 two carnival performers got wise and convinced the undertaker they were McCurdy’s brothers and the undertaker released the body into their care.

From there, McCurdy traveled all over the country as an attraction as well as doing a stint in the LA Wax Museum, an amusement park near Mount Rushmore, and as a prop in a few low budget films.  Somewhere along the way someone wrapped up his body like a mummy and hung McCurdy from the ceiling in Nu-Pike Amusement Park fun house in Long Beach, California.  By then the fact that McCurdy had ever been a person was forgotten.

McCurdy was rediscovered in 1976 when a film crew for the Six Million Dollar Man TV show decided to film in that fun house, four years after McCurdy was first hung from the rafters.  While moving the body, McCurdy’s arm fell off and the crew realized that was an actual body.

Wow.  Talk about awkward.

An investigation ensued and the corpse’s identity came to light, helped along by the fact that he still had a couple coins stuck in his gullet.  In April of 1977, Elmer McCurdy was finally laid to rest in Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma.  To ensure McCurdy would stay planted, the state medical examiner ordered two cubic yards of cement poured over the coffin before they filled in the grave.  He’s been there ever since.

Now, think about all of that and put it into context as a writer.  Whoever was writing Elmer McCurdy’s story was one humorously sadistic SOB that took “how much worse can it get?” and ran with it beyond the horizon.

So.  When you sit down to work with your characters, take a moment to think about poor Elmer McCurdy.  Then look back at your characters, smile an evil little smile (you can also twirl your mustache if you possess one), and push the boundaries on the hell you’re planning to saddle them with.  After all, your characters need nod even be alive to still go through hell, so make their stories interesting.


If you’re interested in learning more about the unfortunate outlaw, here are a few links:

Weird California:


©Shiloh Ohmes 2013


2 thoughts on “The Art of Giving Your Character Hell

  1. Pingback: Beginnings and Endings: The Core of a Story | Crazy Inkslinger, A Writer's Blog

  2. Pingback: Happy Author Smashing: Torturing Your Darlings | Crazy Inkslinger, A Writer's Blog

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