Your characters have to fail. There’s no story without it. Everyone knows struggle = drama. So what’s the mistake I see new writers making when it comes to struggle? Read on.
You’ve read all the advice about conflict. You know that your character has to want something to be believable. You’ve written your open, in which Hero finds himself in a hideous pickle. It’s full of hooks, drama, and excitement. It’s all conflict.
Aaaaaaaand here’s where you fuck up. You go soft on Hero. You don’t think you do, but you do. You’re a marshmallow, squishy soft. From here on out, the problems Hero faces are so easy that any pretense of struggle looks stupid. There is only one way for Hero to go, and thus, you’ve hamstrung your drama and neutered your conflict.
I’ll illustrate my point with an example.
Setting: Modern Day
Main Character: Joanna, a schoolteacher
The abuse started ten years ago, just after the wedding. Now, Joanna isn’t sure she can leave her abusive husband for the dashing, gallant stranger who just entered her life. She’s torn between her desire for freedom and her fear of leaving her crappy husband behind. She lusts after the sexy, intelligent, mysterious stranger, and fears her icky, slap-happy husband.
Where am I finding the conflict here? Some people are afraid of change, terrified of it. Oooookay. Some people are so beaten down, they can’t imagine a better life. I guess. But you can’t leave it at that. If I can’t feel the dilemma, why would I care that Joanna feels one? There’s no entertainment in her decision.
(In case you forgot, your job as a writer is to entertain. You can say all the highfalutin things you want about it, but if you aren’t entertaining, then you need to go write nonfiction. Period. End of sentence.)
It’s not actually drama yet. Of course she runs off with the stranger. No shit. There’s really only one way this can go, and so, there’s no tension, no drama, no struggle.
You have to get tough on Joanna. Using this same example, here are different ways I can make Joanna’s life suck enough for me to actually worry about what happens next.
It’s 1934, the depths of the Depression. Joanna is pregnant with her third child. Last night, her husband laid his hands on her, blacking her eye. She hasn’t been hit since she got caught by her mother stealing sugar cubes in the market.
That’s a bit better. We can assume there’s no money, that she’s tied down by the other children. Recent abuse tells us that this is a new thing- if he was always a hitter, our sympathy is lessened. If he’s undergone some change, our interest is already piqued- what the hell happened to make him hit her?- and as a character, he may yet be redeemed. We’re talking about spinning a web, all the ties that restrict your character, all the things against which they will struggle.
Now, when you introduce the story tangle, don’t make it so simple. If Mr. Dashing Stranger is perfect, Joanna would be batshit insane to not run off with him. If Mr. Dashing shows some obvious flaws, Joanna is in a pickle. An Actual Pickle.
Mr. Dashing has a dangerous past- he owes the mob on a vig in Chicago. He’s lying low in Joanna’s hometown for now, but he’s going to have to move on soon.
Now we have pressure. He’s not an upstanding citizen. There’ s a time limit on Joanna’s decision. Add that to Joanna’s existing scenario, and there’s no end of trouble here. If Joanna is at a crossroads, and both ways kind of suck, then I’m interested. If every choice MIGHT be a bad choice, then I want to know what’s coming. That is how pages get turned, folks.
Look at all the problems we can explore here:
Even if Joanna runs off with Mr. Dashing, can she take her children with her? The mob is chasing him. A responsible parent would never expose their children to that danger. So does she leave the older children behind? What mother could do that? And what if she stays, and her husband’s recent abuse continues? A responsible parent would never expose their children to that danger…Why would Mr. Dashing want to raise someone else’s child? How do you raise a baby on the run? He already owes the mob, so how is he going to afford to support them? Does she make the secure choice and stay, and watch what may be the love of her life leave her behind? Does she stay and suffer at the hands of her husband, or risk the danger of a life with Mr. Dashing? Does she leave them all and go make her way on her own, a mother of three in the worst economy of our nation’s history?
Joanna’s life SUUUUCKS right now. That is a conflict. That’s a story where something BIG is going to happen. She is going to struggle and fail at something no matter what she decides. She can’t win. Not a clean sweep, anyway. Give her less obvious wins, and more obvious failure, more opportunities to really screw up. That’s one of the ways you write characters that aren’t just cardboard cut-outs.
There are so many other ways we could have made Joanna’s life complicated, or made her choice less certain. Instead of changing the time period, we could have made her husband a private detective or a policeman. Good luck running from him, a la Rose Madder. We could have still given her children, but maybe one of the children is ill, requiring constant care, and maybe she’s afraid the new baby will have the same condition. Mr. Dashing doesn’t have to owe the mob to be a less-than-perfect romantic tangle. There are about 10 million ways to complicate him. Using just our original example and changing one or two factors made our story INTERESTING. How she overcomes those tangles are what make the story entertaining. That is your job.
So get tough. There are very rarely easy outs in life. Even if there’s only one solution, there is usually something in the way. Sometimes it’s something as intangible as pride. Sometimes it’s much bigger than that.
Let’s do something a little different with comments today. Using our original example for Joanna, tell me what immediate tangles and ties you would add to make her story interesting, to really hose up her life. Let’s see how entertaining it can get.