I had an author – a lovely old woman – who churned out a couple of historical romance novels yearly. Her writing was good and her voice engaging. The only problem was that the characters would always get together within the first twenty-five pages. The rest of the books (another sixty thousand words or so in each book) involved the minutiae of the characters’ everyday lives, e.g. decorating the house, going on picnics, shopping, and that sort of thing.
I would tell this author that once the characters were together, the story was effectively over. This was the point where the last line should – in fairy tale speak – figuratively read, ‘And they lived happily ever after.’ The drama and captivation (of the story) should come from all the obstacles the characters had to overcome to get to this point. I cited Jane Austen as an example: Austen’s romances feature nothing but obstacles for the protagonists. That’s what hooks readers, builds their interest, and has them rooting for the characters. Once the characters get together, it’s over. Destination reached. My author, however, responded that she couldn’t bear to keep her characters apart.
It’s natural that we become attached to our characters. As we write, we get to know them; they endear themselves to us. Sometimes, they’ll surprise us, or even charm us. And, in doing so, they seduce us. We grow to love them as if they were real people. Their travails occupy our minds and, some times, because they mean so much to us, we decide to take it easy on them.
But easy is boring.
Our characters need to be pushed through hell – kicking and screaming (well, in our own heads at least) if required. Compelling storytelling comes through the journeys our characters undertake. Nobody’s interested in a story of a protagonist who wakes up to save the world and not only remains unchanging throughout, but triumphs with aplomb whenever faced with adversity. Nor is it interesting if a protagonist is going through any sort of upheaval which doesn’t push their boundaries.
We all have things that go in our lives. The question – as morbid as it can seem – is when does that become interesting? If somebody tells you they broke a nail or stubbed their toe, it’s mildly amusing – an anecdote that you’ll most likely forget. If they tell you they broke a nail, the finger got infected, they ran a fever, were kept awake the night with chills, they braved through it despite having to go to work the next day, the infection got into their heart, they collapsed, an ambulance rushed them to a hospital and a defibrillator was required to revive them, well, that’s interesting. That’s a story we’d probably want to hear, and one we’ll likely remember and even possibly retell.
The only thing we need to be mindful of is keeping everything in context. Don’t stack up problems for the sake of stacking. Issues themselves should both be logically constructed and have their own arcs. There’s no point writing a story about a character coming home to find their partner in bed with the neighbour, getting a phone call from their boss telling them they’re fired, and the bank sending a note that their foreclosing the mortgage, just for the sake of all these things happening. Find validation for pushing them to extremes. Find purpose in the turmoil, (even if it’s only purpose for your own justification).
Logically (and just as an example), the character might come home for lunch and find their partner in bed with the neighbour. They might go out to the local and get drunk, thus being late back for work, so the boss sacks them. Short of salary that week, they might miss a final payment to the bank, which results in the mortgage being foreclosed. There’s a logic in what’s occurring now, a causality. Now it’s up to the character to either spiral further out of control or to address these issues, (and, at some point, they will need to address things).
Think about your characters. Have you gone soft on them? Don’t let them fool you. Mistreat them. They might not like it, you might hate it, but your writing will be happier for it.