Getting your characters in trouble

NaNoWriMo very kindly and wisely provides emailed pep talks each week, some from regional liaisons, and some from published authors. Here's an excerpt from Week Three's pep talk from Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander and Paint It Black:

When in doubt, make trouble for your character. Don't let her stand on the edge of the pool, dipping her toe. Come up behind her and give her a good hard shove. ... In life we try to avoid trouble. We chew on our choices endlessly. We go to shrinks, we talk to our friends. In fiction, this is deadly. Protagonists need to screw up, act impulsively, have enemies, get into TROUBLE.

The difficulty is that we create protagonists we love. And we love them like our children. We want to protect them from harm, keep them safe, make sure they won't get hurt, or not so bad. Maybe a skinned knee. Certainly not a car wreck. But the essence of fiction writing is creating a character you love and, frankly, torturing him. You are both sadist and savior. Find the thing he loves most and take it away from him. Find the thing he fears and shove him shoulder deep into it. Find the person who is absolutely worst for him and have him delivered into that character's hands. Have him make a choice which is absolutely wrong.

When I started writing my romance novel, I knew I wanted my hero to suspect the heroine was lying, to manufacture plot trouble for them. But I was cheating the system. I wanted my heroine not to be a liar. I wanted her to remain pure and blameless.

And then I came to my senses. A perfect protagonist is boring (look at Fanny in Mansfield Park -- sorry, Jane!).

I had to throw my characters into trouble. I had to make them flawed so they had somewhere to progress to during the course of the novel. It's frustrating when the novel starts out with an ideal relationship and situation that has problems thrown at it. It's less frustrating and more suspenseful when there's just a vision of an ideal relationship and situation that the characters need to move toward.

NaNoWriMo 08In my current novel, I made sure to place my heroine in danger. She needs to have the possibility of failing and even dying to create tension, to create a story. Along the same lines, she has to take steps and try things out that I would never have the gumption to, because it would be really boring to read about me!

It's similar to being afraid to kill off characters, as in my other post. Sometimes being a writer feels like too much power, but we have to learn not to be afraid to use it.

How have you hesitated in creating trouble for your characters? How have you convinced yourself to throw them into danger and face the consequences?

Scary dinosaur courtesy of Rodolfo Clix from stock.xchng


Lauren Wayne » Blog Archive » NaNoWriMo distraction said...

[...] should really listen to myself more. I had created a female protagonist who was that most deadly of all sins in fiction: [...]

Lauren Wayne » Blog Archive » Add tension to your novel said...

[...] basic idea is to throw your beloved characters into trouble. It’s a lesson I’ve been told before, but I can always stand to hear it [...]

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