The final post in this series will explore the ways your characters can be derailed by consumption and comfort. If you missed Part 1, which explored the need for control, you can read it here. If you missed Part 2, about conceit and coveting, you can find it here. As a reminder, while reading The Five Thieves of Happiness by John Izzo, I wanted to share how his ideas could be applied to my characters to create more conflict in my WIP, hence this series.
Consumption is about acquiring material things. Consumption powers our economy, makes us want to buy in order to be happy. Consumption puts a price on happiness, setting up an elusive out there. Consumption is at odds with contentment, which is a decision to be at peace, according to Izzo.
How can this affect your characters?
We throw all kinds of obstacles and twists between the first page and the last. If my main character all of a sudden realized that happiness is a choice, my story would be over. However, the journey to that satisfying point of self-discovery is why readers read our books. If we let them feel our character's pain, angst, and indecision along the way, they can glimpse how those ideas may work in their own lives. For someone who is not plagued by consumption, they can still enjoy seeing a character work through solving the problems created by believing happiness is just around the next acquisition, whether it is a new car, a new estate, or a new love.
But possessions require a trade—of money, time, relationships, routine. How your characters handle these transactions can bring conflict—or contentment—into their lives.
In my first book, my male lead character wanted nothing more than to acquire a shipping contract for Earth's best energy source. He left Earth to travel three months to pitch his proposal. He won the proposal, but then wondered why he wasn't happy.
In my WIP, he's back on the planet. His entire life has changed because of his initial desire for that contract. Now he's going to have to fight for his life, literally, after giving up every credit he's earned. He's going to be broke. Flat broke, after living a life of privilege and luxury. And guess what? He's happy. Because he's doing what he wants to do. He's made the choice to pursue his own life.
How did he get there? Over and over, in small ways at first, he chose contentment over consumption. He stopped thinking I will be happy if I get whatever he wanted at the time. He realized that enslavement to things wasn't making him happy, and that it wasn't the things that were the problem, it was his relationship to those material things.
Comfort keeps us stuck in the same routine. It's like watching TV but not changing the channel to another program because we'd have to get up to retrieve the remote. It's like we're on autopilot. That doesn't move us ahead in life. It doesn't help us make order of our world. And, as humans, we need to make order from chaos. This snippet from Izzo says it all: Our minds are hardwired for routine but excited by change.
What a great quote to remember to create conflict for our characters. No wonder females are attracted to the "bad boy." No wonder we want to leave what happens on vacation, well, there. We crave our daily habits, but we love to shake things up every once in a while. New situations excite us. Historically, new information was important for our survival. "Don't go into that cave. A bear lives there," could save our life.
When we're excited by change, our happiness revolves around those new experiences, resolving new challenges, learning new skills. And that's exciting. Stories from veterans returning from war support the research that shows many relationships forged in danger deepen faster, are stronger, and last longer than others.
No wonder bonds are formed quickly in suspense thrillers. We recognize real life and believe people connect more quickly. In romance, real and fiction, extended routine and comfort can damage or kill that romantic spark. But something new, a surprise, an unexpected gift, or a special message breaks the routine and strengthens the romance.
(An aside from this brain research geek: The more you move out of your routine, say drive your car a different way home from work, the more we engage our brains, we stimulate brain cell growth and activity. Your brain actually grows from new experiences.)
Can you see the potential for this in a novel? If you want to, spend a few minutes and see how breaking out of your comfort zone has spurred you on to new adventures. Maybe at the time they didn't seem so exciting or successful. Use your own experience to inform your writing. Infuse your characters with your hard-earned wisdom.
A character's tendency to keep everything the same, to remain on cruise control, can force her to hang on to old patterns. Patterns that may be unhelpful for her current situation. At this time your character wants to protect her routine, whatever the cost. It's hard, and scary, to take back the wheel and drive on her own. But that, too, can make for a compelling story.
Show your character struggling with the effort of changing his life, waffling back and forth between the familiar routine and reaching out for the change that will stimulate growth and the happiness to follow.
We all go through periods of comfort and routine, when we consolidate what we've learned from new experience and challenges. That's normal. But at some point, we, like our characters, must break through that comfort and routine for new experiences and new challenges.
Not all routines are helpful. If your character is mired in a pattern based from childhood neglect or abuse, or a recent relationship issue, those patterns must be broken to establish healthy relationships. Fear of a new way of thinking is normal. There is much possibility for showing emotion and taking your reader on the ride in this scenario.
Comfort can make us feel safe, but surprise brings excitement to our lives. Changing old habits offers the opportunity to to find a way of life that works for us. The same is true for our characters. This is the basis of a character arc.
Your character might decide to try one new thing a week. (Lots of comedy possible in this!) Your character could resist all change that would pull her out of her comfort zone. Your characters can challenge every pattern that no longer works in their current situation. Lots of drama and conflict possibilities with that.
Between all five thieves of your characters' happiness, you should be able to inject enough real conflict into your stories to provide your readers with a thrilling experience, no matter your genre.
What thief have you used successfully in your writing?
Which one would you like to add to your WIP or build a new story around?
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, putting the finishing touches on P.R.I.S.M. Book Two.
P.R.I.S.M., a young adult science fiction romance story of survival, betrayal, resolve, deceit, lies, and love.