Characters: Conflict vs. Suffering

Characters are the reason fiction exists. Or so I am told. And this means it is most important to ripen your characters until their stories satisfy the reader. If you focus on plot before character, you’ll get a cool summary of events, but it reads like a news story, and it will be virtually impossible for readers to be immersed and feel like it’s happening to them. If your emphasis goes to worldbuilding, you might get a nice 400 page travelogue (whether or not it’s a world you made up), but again it will be a little cold and aloof — two things fiction are not supposed to be.

Characters are important, is what I’m saying. And one of the basic commandments for a writer is “Make things difficult for them.” Often this has been spoken of in terms of a character “suffering.” It might also be referred to as “conflict.” Interest can only be maintained in a story if something prevents a character from getting what they want.

For the sake of honesty, I’ve lately discovered that I prefer the second term. Maybe that’s just for me individually. I haven’t lived an especially hard life, and like most people I hate the idea of bullying or making anyone suffer. For me, there’s something deeper and more painful than mere discomfort that springs from the idea of maliciously forcing a person to go through a hard time even if it’s for a good end, like writing a satisfactory tale. Just because I want a character to rescue his/her one true love from an assassin and want to make the task overwhelmingly hard doesn’t mean I’m going to do something I hate. If you can do this (to fictional people, mind you) and still tell a great story, then you have my utmost respect and admiration.

However, I can still make the character’s journey difficult and keep myself inspired and glad to be writing at the same time — if I tackle the same problem from the approach of “conflict.” For some reason, that approach gets my own gears turning. Ideas pour out onto the page when I’m not putting some obstacle in the way of a protagonist out of some hidden malice, but because they need a problem to solve that is interesting, urgent, or high-stakes.

Probably a matter of semantics, I know. Nevertheless, even if the character is traumatized and suffers because of the “conflict,” I still need to treat it like a puzzle, and hope to God that I don’t end up with cold, aloof fiction. The approach may be a little more detached, but I take more joy in it, and still realize its final result must hit home for the reader and engage them emotionally.

By the way, yes, I know these characters exist only in my head. It’s still my job to regard them as colleagues and human beings. After all, I’m telling their story, and trying to make readers care about them.

How about you? Do you like approaching characters from a standpoint of suffering or conflict, or something else altogether? I’d love to have some input and get a discussion going. That is, when I’m not frantically trying to finish my own novel’s edits.

Thanks for putting up with another of my dry, abstract ramblings. I do appreciate it!

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Characters Need to Feel the Burn

…whether by real fire, a horrible boss who’s always on his case, or a gallon of coffee in his lap.

One of the lessons I’ve been learning and applying recently in fiction writing is that characters (especially main characters) should suffer in some way, throughout the story. They cannot only have fun as the tale goes through its motions, and they cannot be given everything they want, certainly not at the moment they want it — where’s the drama in ordering a cup of coffee and getting it without incident?

And they can’t always shrug it off when they aren’t getting their way. If nothing is important to them, why would the reader think it important? Protagonists need to be hit where it hurts, because then the reader is more invested in their story. Pain breeds empathy, and the more your reader can connect with your character, the better.

To demonstrate, I will link to a hysterically funny clip from the Robot Chicken Star Wars parody, about Emperor Palpatine’s visit to the second Death Star. All copyrights and such belong to Adult Swim, Robot Chicken, Cartoon Network, etc. Go check it out.

Are you back? All right. That should start to give you a general idea of what happens to characters worth reading about: throughout the story, things keep happening that get in their way. Whether it’s from external conflict or their inner flaws and fears, characters’ journeys should not be easy.

Keep the pressure on your character by having new tortures thrown at them, or else one half of the novel will rivet your eyes to the page, and the other half will drag you, bored, through cold and dull mud. Readers want to read about people triumphing over adversity, not going for a pleasant stroll in the countryside without drama or danger.

Of course, there are many ways to make someone suffer, and different people should encounter adversity in various ways. Depending on the effect and the kind of story you’re telling, your character doesn’t need to be in constant pain or terror. It seems less than honest when the character (and reader) gets no chance at all to breathe and gather their thoughts. It varies, and you might have to trust your instinct a little. Tristan Thorn got to relax, smile, and take in the scenery quite a bit in Stardust, and Buttercup and Westley had many tender moments together in The Princess Bride, with episodes of adventure and peril in between. On the other hand, Arya Stark hardly ever catches a breather from trauma and tragedy in Game of Thrones, and Kvothe in Name of the Wind similarly has a devil of a time navigating a city or a magical academy on his own initiative.

Even if they win in the end, your beloved characters should get a rough ride. Now for the real challenge: to try applying that in my own work….