Don’t Make Their Lives Easy – by Gail Gaymer Martin

MakeADecision_v1-562x424Too often authors make situations too easy for characters. They like the people they create, and just as they want happiness and success for their real life friends, they want the same for their characters. But a novel with easy to resolved problems is really a “why bother” story.

Real life piles problems on people everyday, some easily solved and some not, so characters need to have similar lives. They must make difficult decisions to change their lives, to lie or be honest, to give up or keep going  But in fiction which is bigger than life, authors can go even deeper with characters’ problems and struggles. Here are some strategies that will strengthen characters’ struggles and create a can’t-put-down novel for readers.

Happy Events Gone Sour

Have you ever had your characters go on a picnic? Go to a parade? Plan a weekend at the beach? Did you give them sunshine and fun? How about introducing bad weather: a downpour, an electrical storm, typhon winds, scorching heat. Don’t make everything perfect. Is a holiday meal part of the plot? Burn the main entre, forget that Uncle Don can’t eat dairy, invite two relatives who aren’t speaking, bring in surprise guests and not enough seating or food. Make it difficult. You can add many events to a story that dampens a situation to add reality to your novel. It also allows your characters to show how they handle the situation. Are the inventive in their solutions? Do they fall apart? Not everything is great and perfect. Keep that in mind when developing plots.

What motivates the goal?
Novels open with characters having a goal—a need or want that they are willing to fight for. Authors assume that reaching a goal will bring the character happiness. It could be fame and fortune, a new career, or a longed for love. But authors must go deeper and ask why. Why does the character need fame and fortune? Why a new career? Why is greater happiness needed?

To go deeper, look into the character’s past and microscope his values and experiences to detect what has caused this longing to be so important that he will fight for it. As you delve deeper, you should find evidence in which the lack of this quality caused the character pain or shame. He now needs to prove to himself that he is worth more. It’s a core need of everyone—self-worth.

What might have damaged his self-worth?
∙ Failure to succeed as a child and then bullied.
∙ Told by a parent or person of importance that he is stupid, useless or a failure.
∙ Burdened by shame of a past behavior that injured another, now a need for repentance.
Create a character whose deep past results in the present need. Revealing a core issue or negative experience makes the character’s need greater than it was in his past. Readers will grab onto the struggle and cheer on the character to success.

Intensify The Problem
Again, a problem is only as good as the struggle to resolve it. Authors may begin a novel with a conflict that’s easier to resolve, but before it reaches it’s peak, a new conflict begins, one that builds barriers and exposes drop-offs, ones that seem impossible to overcome. Do this in stages.
∙ The resolution seems ready to resolve but the resolution fails.
∙ Seeking another resolution, he finds his last attempt created an even greater complication.
∙ A new problem, not necessarily related to the first, sucks away his time and energy to solve, slowing his progress and strength to resolve the first issue. This could relate to a family or career problem.
In making life even harder, an author deepens the story and helps to make it unforgettable.

Use Sagging Middle Techniques
When novelists realize the middle of their novel has begun to sag, losing excitement and forward motion, numerous techniques can be found to bring the middle back to life. Some of these approaches work well for intensifying a problem resolution.
∙ An unexpected character, letter or phone call with a new situation drops into the story bearing bad news as a complication.
∙ A bad decision is about to be made based on the lack of information, and readers are screaming, “Don’t believe him. Don’t do it. He’s lying.”
∙ A distraction causes a character to miss the obvious. A burglar slips through a back window when a character stops to answer the phone. A cheating husband sneaks the other woman out the back door while the wife is distracted by a neighbor’s visit.
∙ A time element, the ticking-clock, enters the story and puts a time pressure on the resolution of the problem. The man learns the woman he loves is moving to Europe for a year, and he has yet to prove the depth of his love to her. The detective realizes the killer’s MO gives him only twelve more hours to find the child he kidnaped.

These are only a few of the  elements that keep readers breathless. They hang on to every moment and word while waiting to see what will happen.

Deepen Conflicts
Work toward deepening the character’s conflicts and issues by using some of these strategies in your next novel. An occasional success or positive experience, something worth praise or celebration, can break into the gloom providing a sense of relief, but don’t drift too far from the serious issues.

Even at a party, peoples’ minds do not release all the serious situations in their lives. Use relief as Shakespeare used the comic moment and when it’s over, return immediately to the issues at hand. When you are able to add strength and depth to the character’s crises, you will also strengthen and deepen the appreciate of your readers.

© Gail Gaymer Martin 2014


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  1. Tamara Meyers December 19, 2014 at 3:29 am #

    Thank you, Gail. I have prayed and prayed, and you were the answer! This is just the advice I need to help my character to become ‘real’. I have two males who are doing fairly well but the female needed a reason to withhold the truth and your post nudged the muse into revealing her dilemma ~ thank you again, Tamara

  2. Jackie Layton December 19, 2014 at 7:31 am #

    Thanks for the reminder. As I begin to think about my next story, I’ll keep this in mind.

    Merry Christmas!

  3. Jill December 19, 2014 at 8:33 am #

    This is great stuff, Gail. I agree with Tamara, it’s just what I needed too.
    Wishing you and your family a blessed holiday season.

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