Among the writing rules is one that I actually agree with most of the time: torture your characters. That sounds a little extreme, but for the most part it is good advice. Why? Because good story rise out of conflict, conflict comes from adversity, and adversity means that things are going wrong.
Think about it in terms of your last vacation. Did everything go according to plan? If so, congratulations: you had a good vacation. It was probably exactly what you needed and you came back refreshed and ready to take on the struggles of your everyday life again. That is what a good vacation is for. If not, though I’ll bet you spent the next 2-3 months telling the stories of how everything went so very wrong. You became a very popular person at the water cooler, the bar stool even at parties. People wanted to hear the story of how you went to the Bahamas and were stuck wearing the same flannel shirt you arrived in the whole time because the airline lost your luggage and the insurance company wouldn’t send you a check (which you wouldn’t have been able to cash anyway) until you sent them the incident report that the airline mailed to your house in Minnesota. You would have had some stories to tell about relaxing by the pool in your new swim suit if things had gone well, but they would have lasted maybe a week until the next person came home from Las Vegas.
The same is true on the nightly news. We all know that most people don’t get mugged when they go to the corner store. Most people manage to go to the store, buy what they need, maybe have a brief but pleasant conversation with the clerk and get home without anything going wrong. We don’t hear about those people. We hear about the poor guy who just happened to need some cough drops when the masked man with a gun was holding up the place. Suddenly, he’s surrounded by reporters hanging on his every word and he’ll have a story to tell for the next three years at least. Even in the sports report, it’s all stats until someone has a fake girl friend dying of cancer. The Olympics are great about this, they will dig into any athlete’s history until they find that one cousin on their mother’s side six times removed who is watching the Olympics from a hospital room just to make the story of the star runner “interesting”.
The point here is that people like to hear about problems bigger than their own. They don’t want to read about someone who’s whole life is just a normal every day kind of thing. They want to read about someone overcoming adversity and struggling to reach their goal. They want to root for the little guy, and come along for the triumph that will probably never happen in their daily lives. If it’s easy, it’s boring. What’s an author to do?
First remember that as an author you are the god to your characters. You make the world, you control coincidences, you can change the rules if you have to. In other words you are in charge. In real life you would want to behave morally with that kind of power, but not in fiction. It is your job to make the lives of your characters just as hard as you can without breaking them. You have to take away their power, their comfort, their favorite toy. Make things so tough that they stare up at the sky and ask you “why me?”
There is a catch of course – you have to do it believably. You have to make it seam reasonable that they would start the morning late and have a flat tire on the way to work and somehow this does not put them out of the running for saving the world. One way to do this is to figure out what your character’s strength are and to make sure that the solution is just the opposite. So you have a character who has been training as a warrior all her life and is totally skilled with a sword – she’ll have to talk her way out of trouble. The character who is an expert puzzle solver needs to brute their way through to the other side. The marksman can’t get a clean shot. You get the idea. Don’t make it easy for them. Sure your character could be an expert in something, even the world’s greatest, as long as that skill isn’t the one that’s going to save the world.
That’s not the only way. You can also pit the world’s greatest warrior against a force that will test even that skill. An up and coming rival who is using performance enhancing drugs or magic will force your character to dig deep and strengthen that skill even further. The puzzle solver can go up against a puzzle no one has solved before and the talker take on a delicate political situation. You just have to make sure that these skills are all just a little outside your character’s current ability. Yeah, that’s the hard part.
The other thing you need is real jeopardy. The character needs to be facing the biggest loss of her life if she fails (nothing like a little pressure). There are the classics: the world blows up, MC’s lover is hanging by a thread over a lava pit, you know that kind of thing. These are classics for a reason, and as such are on the brink of cliche so be careful. You can also go for the more personal like losing the title of best in the world. Losing to her third grade rival is another one. These kinds of jeopardies require that you make sure that your reader fully buys into your character, but you do that already anyway. Whatever you chose make sure that it is real, that the character and by extension the reader, can’t stand the thought of losing. I mean who cares if you lose the bet if all you have to do is buy the other guy a soda. No, failing must mean a major life change for the character.
Last, but not least, you can’t let your character be happy with the situation. Happy people aren’t motivated to do things. They’re happy. No you need your character miserable or at the very least pissed of. The easy way to do this is to find what the character loves most and take it away. A child loses a parent, a parent loses a child, lovers are separated, a collector loses the penultimate piece to their collection, a writer loses their favorite pen, and so on and so forth. It’s not all about losing things though. You could give a gutter dweller a brief glimpse of the penthouse to let them see just how lousy their life is. You could have the boss drop yet another ton of paperwork on the desk or have the lover caught cheating. There are any number of ways to make your character unhappy enough to act.
These suggestions do tend toward the extreme. Certainly there are many ways in which you could tone it down a bit and still come up with a strong story. Still the point is that if you are being nice to your characters, you aren’t doing your job as a story teller. Stories are great because the adversity it great. They allow the reader to escape from their reality by letting them see a version of just how bad it could be, so when they look up the world they live in isn’t so bad after all. So next time you sit down to tell a story, see just how evil of a god you can be.