Sleep Deprived Characters

January 28, 2010 at 5:32 am (Character, Tension) (, , , , , , )

Most writers I have spoken to know exactly what it feels like to be sleep deprived. To have gone on well past your limit and to be at that stage where thought is utterly impossible. Your limbs feel heavy, your vision is blurring, sounds are too loud but not clear, and simple questions suddenly take hours to think through to answer.

How long does it take you to get to this stage? I know I am not the kind of person who can go for days without sleep. Possibly in an extreme situation with adrenaline and the like I could be on my feet for a little longer but my thinking would probably still be very cloudy and incoherent.

Which brings us to characters in stories.

We’ve all read stories where the characters have been running, hiding, fighting, etc for days and nights and snatching a few moments rest when they can. These characters are occasionally described as looking tired and they mention a need for rest but their actions seldom match. They still make good decisions and they still manage to lift their weapons and aim and to run in a straight line.

Putting your character in a situation where they can’t rest gives you the perfect opportunity to build tension. It also gives you an excellent opportunity to make a really bad situation much worse as the character muddles their way through the events and makes mistakes caused by just being too exhausted to really think things through.

Are your characters getting enough sleep?



  1. twaddleoranything said,

    This is a really interesting point! Sleep-deprivation in real life often prompts much more than just a passing mention of being tired. It can be challenging to throw even more obstacles in your characters’ paths when they’re already in the midst of something intense, but I think you’re right that taking the effects of exhaustion into account could really add a lot to a scene.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      It certainly gives you an excuse for your character to suddenly make very poor decisions they may not otherwise make.

  2. vvdenman said,

    I recently had a character who was dealing with the death of a family member. Because of her grief she was sleep deprived. She didn’t make any monumentally poor decisions, but regardless of that, it built tension. I think readers can simply relate to sleep deprivation, at some level or other.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I definitely think that most of us have experienced sleep deprivation so we can relate to how our characters may feel when they are getting pushed to their limits.

  3. Little Scribbler said,

    That’s a good point. So was your first comment. I never really thought about sleep deprivation that much. But then again, I haven’t really had to yet – my characters sleep on planes.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Do they travel often enough to catch up on sleep? What if there was a really loud baby on the flight? Still, it is an interesting way around the problem of characters getting sleep. Thanks for the comment.

  4. katswhiskers said,

    General comment, Cassandra. Glad you found me – so that I could find you. Heaps of interesting stuff on this blog. Can’t believe you’re doing a post a day! (Is that all year?) Keep up the great work! I’ll be checking back in – and sharing your link with writing buddies.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Glad you dropped by for a visit. I aim for a post a day but during periods of high stress I am going to take breaks – I let people know when these are coming up.

  5. sapphireangelkj said,

    most of my charaters are insomniacs but it’s only because I am

  6. Sheryl Gwyther said,

    So glad Kat passed on your link, Cassandra. Great topics and well written. Look forward to a regular check out of your site.

  7. AlexJ said,

    My characters lose sleep and become exhausted while they are fighting a war. And yes, tension mounts and tempers flare!

  8. Carol Kilgore said,

    Great post. I can relate, too, because I’m getting less sleep than normal these days because I’m almost at the end of my manuscript and my brain won’t shut down enough for sleep. It’s definitely something to remember about our characters. This particular story didn’t have a spot for little sleep, but I’m going to look for one on the next draft and see if I can’t make it happen. Thanks.

  9. Crystal Clear Proofing said,

    I know I would not be able to do some of the things the characters I read about do without adequate sleep! But, like you said, it does add dimension and suspense to a story.

    And personally, I also can go a while without – but oh, does it catch up with me! Then I’m useless for at least a day or two!

  10. survivalguru said,

    myself sleeping is like living in another world every night i dream, it is almost as if I go into another world and i never get any rest. I wonder still where I get my characters? not sure what you mean by that….but if you mean thoughts and ideas to write well…that speaks for itself…my characters are real. good post.

  11. Jemi Fraser said,

    In my last ms, the mc was in a sleep deprived state – it was the perfect opportunity to let her have a totally out of character melt down. Lots of fun! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      It is fun to watch totally together characters fall apart sometimes. Maybe I’m just mean to my characters.

  12. tsuchigari said,

    I hear one stage of sleep deprivation is similar to being drunk. I have never been drunk, but I’ve been in that looney, everything is funny, stage. It would be a hoot to have a normally serious character just bust up laughing at something not so funny because of sleep deprivation.

    Sadly I haven’t brought my characters along far enough to use this yet. Soon enough.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Things are definitely more amusing when you are sleep deprived. It could make for some very interesting dialogue.

  13. Corra McFeydon said,

    Great post. I’ve had a sleep-deprived chater before, but never thought about using it to raise tension.

    Great post as always. ๐Ÿ™‚


    from the desk of a writer

  14. Corra McFeydon said,

    My goodness I need to check before posting.

    chaer = character

  15. lawrenceez said,

    Hi Cassandra,

    I’m using lack of sleep as one of the reasons for my main character to plummet in my novel. I think the idea can really work.

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