You’re about to think I’m pretty weird.
I love my characters. Seriously. I hold them in my heart as if they are my own children (well, almost — they’re not quite up there with Molly). And because I love them, I want only good things for them and tend to conduct their lives with little suffering in their stories’ first drafts. But as any avid reader knows, happy endings from happy middles from happy beginnings tend to make for terrible reading.
Characters are the drivers of plot. While it’s true that some things just happen to characters beyond their control, mostly it’s their actions or the actions of another character that move the story along. But if characters don’t face any obstacles — if giant snow storms aren’t threatening to leave them stranded in a bear-infested forest; if evil dictators aren’t plotting to destroy their land to build a giant movie theater — the characters won’t evolve or make bold decisions to change the course of things. In other words, nothing happens.
Right now, as I’m stripping Imperfect One to it’s bare bones, no fluff story, I’m realizing how easy my favorite characters have it for most of the plot. They sort of bob through life encountering a minor inconvenience here or a slight irritation there, and let me tell you, I’ve bored myself to tears with how it drags. And if I’m bored, how can I expect readers who don’t know me at all and have none of my same investment in the story to read past the first fifty pages? If, over time, everything in the novel stays the same, why even read past the first page? It’s tough, but I have to hurt my characters to create a novel worth reading.
You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are. // Joss Whedon
But why must pain be the catalyst for action? Characters act all the time without the threat of peril compelling them to do so. Is it because readers are sadistic jerks who enjoy people’s suffering? Maybe a little, but more than that, it’s because pain and difficulty raise the stakes, and thus require more on the part of the characters. Suffering forces characters to stretch and grow, to change in order to face the obstacle, to outwit it, to subvert it, to blow it up. With their backs to the wall, characters rely on their deepest instincts to make their choices, and depending on those choices, they can rise from the fire or plunge deeper into it. Picking out a cereal for breakfast doesn’t ask characters to look inside and pull out their strongest, wisest, scrappiest, angriest selves; saving a loved one from inevitable destruction does. The draw of a story, then, is the promise of finding out if the characters triumph, if they fight or bend or do the unthinkable to meet their challenges’ demands.
And aren’t those the moments we love to commemorate in our lives, the ones that made us smarter, tougher, kinder, better? We remember them and relive those tough moments because they remind us of how we became the people we are today. A story is just the same: a character’s trek through life’s lows and how she arrives on the other side of them.
So, as much as I hate to hurt my characters, I have to embarrass my protagonist right as she’s stepping up to the biggest performance of her life to see if she can overcome the shame; I have to build a wall in the way of my hero’s freedom and let him think his way around it; I have to kill the main character’s great love to find what blooms in the hole left behind, and if you want to write a gripping story, you will have to as well. Characters must be brought to their knees by life; only then do we see if they bow to compliance or draw a blade to level their enemies. That’s when things get interesting.
NOW TELL ME // Do you struggle with challenging your characters? Let me know below, and click here for a printable worksheet to identify sources of conflict in your story.
photo by: Ricardo Frantz