plot devices

Cursed, Dumb, or Unlucky? Making Trouble for Your Characters

“Torture your characters” is advice I’ve seen so often I think I should add it to my ever-increasing list of Advice to Question. Maybe I’m mellowing in my old age, but this one does have some merit.

For one thing, if the story’s goal is achieved or the problem solved too quickly, the novel or story ends up being too short and possibly boring. Boring the reader is a cardinal sin of writing. So it’s pretty much a given that the writer must create an obstacle course their characters must negotiate to achieve whatever it is they want or need.

Two problems I’ve experienced with doing this:

  • In real life, I make efforts to avoid problems when I’m planning a DIY project, a road trip, or cooking a dish I haven’t tried before. So it goes against the grain to create problems for my main characters, with whom I tend to identify because I often write in first person.
  • I don’t like making my characters look dumb. In She Who Comes Forth, for example, France Leighton does things that may be described as unwise. One reviewer expressed concern about this; another just called her stupid. On the other hand, she is not a “Mary Sue.”

Like any other plot device, the obstacles, difficulties, or perils we create for our characters have to serve the plot. The bumps along the road must be consistent with the plot and advance it, rather than be obviously stuck in to follow the “torture your characters” rule. A deus ex machina is a deus ex machina, even if the god intervenes to mess things up rather than fix them.

If a story involves life-threatening situations, escape and flight, or the schemes of an evil antagonist, perilous situations are essential parts of the plot. But what if your story is about ordinary life? Well, there’s always the difficult boss, the unexpected guest, the leaky roof, or the machinations of bureaucrats.

In addition to fitting the plot, the obstacles have to be appropriate for the character and situation. A flat tire is a mere annoyance if time isn’t of the essence. Climbing a high ladder and crawling onto a steep roof packs more punch if the character who has to do it is terrified of heights. The best obstacles are the ones with no good or safe choice. They may include all kinds of hard choices, not only physical dangers.

Putting characters in trouble can benefit the plot in ways other than creating tension. Negotiating with the boss, accommodating (or ejecting) the unexpected guests, or figuring out how to deal with bureaucracy would be opportunities to

  • show characters’ flaws and fears
  • show how they cope with adversity
  • show how they change or grow over the course of the story by developing skills or changing attitudes.

Does anyone else have a problem with making their characters struggle? Does anyone love doing it? Share your torture tips!

Image from Pexels