Finding the Right Path.

pathLast week, we talked about putting your characters through hell.

There’s something else you also need to do: be stingy with them.

A pitfall many writers fall into is handing their characters – particularly their protagonists – everything they need to traverse their story. Let’s use the simplest example – when characters are undertaking a journey, like a hero’s quest.

Here’s a basic plot: Bobalob is a fifteen-year-old villager. An evil warlord comes to the province. Bobalob finds out he is the heir to an ancient king, and thus he is capable of great magic and wielding a mighty sword, which transforms him into an undefeatable warrior. He goes out to meet the evil warlord.

How does that sound? Interesting?

The premise might be: the archetypal good versus evil. But look at how easily everything else happens. Everything Bobalob needs for his undertaking is handed to him. He hasn’t had to work for any of it. There’s no character development, no arc. We never see (or experience) what it would require of Bobalob to learn magic or to learn how to wield a sword or to deal with this responsibility of facing an evil warlord.

Think about any skill you’ve developed. Did it occur instantaneously? If you wanted to play tennis, did you just pick up a racquet and become a champion immediately? Or was it something you had to practice frequently, suffering setbacks along the way, all the while learning about how you could improve? Was there somebody you initially couldn’t beat, who might’ve in fact beaten you regularly, until you got good enough to triumph? How did that feel to finally achieve that victory?

Characters should undergo similar transformations. We need to see progress, missteps, stumbles, so even if they’re trying to master something with which we can’t possibly have any empathy – e.g. learning magic, flying a spaceship, becoming a super-spy – we can at least empathise with their efforts. We all know what it’s like to strive for something, to struggle, the frustrations that come along with it (often we might want to give up), and the exultation when we succeed.

Nobody is instantaneously elite at anything they do. Even prodigies have to work to master their talents. So why should your characters have it any easier? Giving them everything they need is boring storytelling and it undermines any dramatic tension you might otherwise be trying to sustain. And the character undergoes no evolution. It’s a Before and After shot, with none of the in-between – and, in this case, the in-between is the interesting stuff.

You might think this seems applicable only to extraordinary adventures, but it remains applicable regardless. Whatever your story is about, don’t just hand your characters what they need. Make them struggle. So even if it’s something as simple as somebody wanting to know something about their partner, or trying to find out whether their child was truant, or whether their best friend has a problem, or whatever the case might be, make them earn it.

This doesn’t mean everything has to be some long-winded melodramatic travail. But don’t just hand things over.


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