What do your characters do when faced with adversity or an imminent threat? How do they recover from one of life’s knock-out punches?
Conflict powers our stories and our character’s personal growth arcs, so we throw a lot at our beloved protagonists. How they “catch” what we toss at them defines not only their essential qualities, but how the story will progress.
Here are five suggestions for getting your characters through tough times. Great news—they’ll work in real life for you, too!
- Focus on what’s right in front of them. When you’re confronted with something unexpected, do you think about the past? Neither do I. I decide if I’m in danger and go from there. Your character’s unexpected event could range from a flat tire in a parking lot to a highwayman pulling her Regency coach to a halt. If that parking lot is empty, and it’s after midnight, and there is a knife stuff in the tire, your character better be looking around, melting into the setting and reaching for a cell phone. That’s very different from being stopped for the fourth time by a highwayman who steals only kisses. It makes sense to have your character focus on the event, not backstory or what’s going to happen tomorrow.
- Visualize overcoming the obstacles to their success. Whether or not you practice visualizations, we all ned to show our readers how our characters think and react. Since our job as writers is to throw obstacles at our characters, it is also our job to show how they plan to defeat the actions of others, or the forces of nature, or even their own faults and desires. Build up and redefine the visualizing process as the conflicts become greater to give your reader the satisfaction of participating in your character’s success.
- Recite their personal mantra. May the Force be with you. Now that’s a mantra that more than one generation can relate to. My characters don’t recite anything so epic (I wish), but they all have a go-to thought or phrase when times get tough. Sometimes the words are a response to a particular situation, words that have been drilled into them from childhood, much like “Yes, ma’am” and “Yes, sir” are giveaways of a military upbringing or growing up in the South. A personal mantra can be a great way to reveal backstory. Or hide it when a character refuses to explain what words they’ve gasped under their breath. When that backstory is finally revealed, the reader feels as if she’s found a small treasure. You, as the reader, know that feeling.
- Bounce back quickly from the unexpected. Unless you’re writing a tear-jerking saga about a character working to overcome one life issue, you probably don’t want him mired in dealing with something unexpected for chapter after chapter after chapter. Life is about reacting to the unexpected, and our characters need to show they can recover and move on if we wish to inspire that hope in our readers. This doesn’t mean your characters are like kernels of popcorn, popping whenever the environment heats up. It does mean that when they are hit by adversity, they actively engage in problem solving, calling in allies, and doing what’s necessary to get their lives back on course. They might even use a combination of methods one, two, and three above.
5. Up the ante. Even when it hurts to throw your beloved creations near or into the fire, remember that readers love seeing a character survive and thrive against all odds and circumstances. A small unexpected happening can start a chain of life events that ramp up tension and drama for the rest of the pages. Upping the ante provides the opportunity to show the solid core of your character. It is a thing of beauty when my character’s growth arc meshes with the plot to reveal the next layer of conflict and the next test of my character’s belief system. We don’t know the extent of what we can handle until we have to deal with more than we’ve ever encountered. And that’s when we have the opportunity to shine. It’s no different for our characters.
How do you move your characters through adversity? Have you drawn on real life experiences to empower your protagonist or, maybe, a villain?
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Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.
Punished, oh-no, that’s published as a co-author of a math textbook, she yearns to hear personal stories about finding love from those who read her books, rather than the horrors of calculus lessons gone wrong. She is grateful for good friends who remind her to do the practical things in life like grocery shop, show up at the airport for a flight and pay bills.
A “hard” scientist who avoided writing classes like the plague, she now shares her brain with characters who demand that their stories be told. Amazing, gifted critique partners keep her on the straight and narrow. Feedback from readers keeps her fingers on the keyboard.