20 January 2013

Embracing woe: Using problems to solve problems by creating problems

You're in charge of your characters, of course, but
would it kill you to let them put on a pair of pants?
As fiction writers, it's a lot of fun to make up characters. We not only give them extraordinary skills and strengths but also adorable personality traits, quirky behaviors, cute accents, likes and dislikes, maybe a particular funny hat that they enjoy wearing. We do this lovingly, creating and nurturing these utterly fascinating people with unique personalities out of nothing but our own imaginations. Then, if we're doing things right, we proceed to make their lives an absolute living hell.
This is not the same as Stephen King's  advice to writers, "Kill your darlings". That pertains to editing. What we're talking about today is torturing your characters. Whatever fiendish torments you can think of, your characters may survive them. They may even triumph, but they're damn sure going to earn that shit. Ian Fleming didn't create James Bond so he could drink shaken (not stirred) martinis with bikini babes in Barbados; he created James Bond so he could aim a laser beam in the vicinity of his genitals. 
But what if you're better at creating characters than you are at creating hoops for them to jump through? Without adversity, without something for your character to overcome, you have no story. Unless you've found an audience that enjoys being bored, that's a problem. A good way to solve it is by simply looking around at what already surrounds you on a daily basis. It's safe to say that if someone told us to make a list of problems we have, it would be fairly easy to fill up both sides of a page of paper. It's not being unnecessarily negative to look subjectively at ourselves to assess the various adversities we face, even if we've got them handled at the moment. Basically, big or small, we all have problems.  And if we have real-life problems, as creative people, it shouldn't be that difficult to come up with some for the lovable imaginary folks lounging about in our heads, doing absolutely nothing noteworthy right now, right?
  • Concerned about where the rent payment is coming from? Maybe your character is a former millionaire who suddenly finds themselves broke. Maybe they're a ruler of a country who finds themselves outcast as a result of losing a revolution.
  • TV on the fritz? Perhaps your character is the victim of a vast technological conspiracy.
  • Have a flat tire recently? Your character could be stranded in the wilderness, helpless, abandoned and vulnerable.
  • Stressed out about some of the things you see and hear in the news lately? Put your character smack dab in the middle of it and let them hash it out on your behalf.

"There are wolves EVERYWHERE!! Hello? Hello?!?"
These are relatively minor concerns. You're liable to have much more serious issues at hand. Utilize the skills you used as a child to exaggerate and pretend to mold those situations into something you can use. Or if you're lucky(!) enough to be like those of us prone to paranoia and pessimism, put those traits to work for you for a change. Who knows? There could be therapeutic value in it beyond what finds it's way onto the page. If nothing else, it will at least be good for your characters.


  1. I liked this post; mostly because one of the things I'm working on with a weekly fiction challenge I'm doing with 9 other writers is that my character is already pretty messed up, but his concerns aren't day-to-day mundane concerns... perhaps if I give him some of those, I will feel more connected to him as a writer. This was good.

  2. An outstanding share! I've just forwarded this onto a coworker who had been doing a little homework on this. And he actually bought me lunch because I found it for him... lol. So allow me to reword this.... Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending some time to talk about this issue here on your web site.
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  3. The key to good storytelling and character development is to know the conflicts on a deep level, and what better way to know a conflict than to actually experience it! I think this is a great way to launch a piece because you can truly give a unique and intense perspective on the situation. Thank you for this post!

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