We authors are really pretty mean folk. Here we are, creating characters who we love almost as much as our family and friends, and yet every day, on every page, we make these characters suffer, we refuse to give them what they want, what they need. Actually, truth be known, we kind of enjoy making them suffer. How is it that we can grin at ourselves around our toothbrushes every morning and feel no shame for this blatant sadism?
Very simply, because if we did, we’d be out of a job. And our characters would have no reason to exist. Conflict fuels fiction, and frustration fuels conflict. Think about a few of your favorite stories. How often, in the course of those stories, are the characters ever rewarded with something they want or need? Occasionally, they probably receive a token reward, a little encouragement to keep them from passing out with the hopelessness of it all. But, more than likely, that token is snatched right back, leaving the character either deeper in the depths of despair or fighting mad enough to do something about it. That fighting-mad attitude is what makes characters tick, makes them come storming off the page. It’s also what keeps the reader racking up chapters.
Fiction is a journey of many words, with the inevitable destination being some faraway, seemingly out of reach desire of one or more of the characters. Sometimes that desire is a thing (the Maltese Falcon in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon), a person (Ashley Wilkes in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind), a state of mind (peace in Milena McGraw’s After Dunkirk), a victory (the defeat of the Shuhr in Kathy Tyers’s Crown of Fire), an escape (from the oppression of the Japanese in Pearl S. Buck’s Dragon Seed), or a place (the Inkworld in Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart). Ultimately the goal matters little and will necessarily be unique to each premise. What does matter and what isn’t unique is the necessity of the character’s burning, undeniable urge to reach that goal.
It’s the author’s enviable job to throw obstacles in the character’s path at every turn. Every time the character (and the reader) begins to think victory and happiness are around the bend, the author has to find some way to circumvent them. (Often, authors identify with their main characters, when really, we are always acting the part of the antagonist: helping him in his battle to defeat the hero.) This sort of frustration is obviously necessary in thrillers and action stories, where the characters’ lives must be under continual threat in order to maintain suspense. But even cozy romances and leisurely literary novels demand frustrated characters.
So how do you go about keeping the stakes as high as possible for your readers?
- Keep your eyes open for lags. If you find your character happy or at peace, chances are he’s not too frustrated. Unless you’re using a temporary lull in the storm to emphasize the disasters to come, avoid these quiet, happy scenes. Not only do they interrupt the dramatic flow, but they also tend to be boring.
- Write a list of the ten worst things that could happen to your character. Jot down all your ideas, no matter how far out. If you haven’t come up with anything feasible by the end of the list, write ten more. So long as you can keep the characters guessing, hopefully you can also keep the readers in the same state of suspense.
- Vary the intensity. Don’t get so caught up in the need for frustration that you lose the necessity of variety. Even the most thrilling race ‘em, chase ‘em, shoot-‘em-up scenes will get boring and lose focus if they aren’t interspersed with more low-key scenes. Frustration doesn’t always have to be a code-red alert; sometimes it can be only a niggling murmur.
- Evaluate your scenes for frustration. Take a glance at the scenes in your work-in-progress and make note of what is frustrating the character in each one. If you can’t find a frustration—or if the source of the frustration seems weak—grab your list of the ten worst things that could happen and start bolstering.
Story by K.M. Weiland