Putting Characters in Sticky Situations

sticky

Image by Sam Catch from Creative Commons

When I read Gemini Jones: My Past Came Knocking by Veronica Faye, I thought the premise was great. I’m always skeptical of reading self-published books, but I was pleasantly surprised by this one. While this isn’t a review of the book, there was one thing about the story that bothered me: the fact that the author made things too easy for her main protagonist.

The premise was solid: a bipolar attorney is handed a high-profile murder case to which she has personal attachments she wants kept secret. Right off the bat, you’d expect the bipolar aspect of the character to add high internal and external conflict to the story. The character even admits at certain points to being so caught up with the case that she’s forgotten to take her meds. All of this is introduced in the first two chapters.

But by Chapter Three, it’s been resolved. She confesses to a friend at her firm that she’s having trouble remembering her medications, so the friend reminds her throughout the book. Nothing ever comes of this gem of a story layer. Why? It could be that Faye refused to make things hard for her character.

I experience this, too: getting so attached to my protagonist that I don’t want them hurt. But that’s what makes great conflict, right? Readers turn the page because they want to know what will happen next. They want to know how will the main character get out of the sticky situation they’ve created for themselves. Writers know there must be conflict–either internal or external or both– to propel the story forward. Even the Bible had conflict, lots of it. But why do we sometimes fall into this “parent trap” where we want to keep our characters safe? Maybe it’s because we aren’t comfortable with experiencing conflict for ourselves.

So I tried something. I decided (because interesting main characters make choices; they don’t just react) to place myself in a real, uncomfortable situation. I listed what might happen (plot twists) and what I could do to get out of the situation (resolution).

Then I did it.

It wasn’t something earth-shattering. I didn’t murder someone or bungee-jump (do people still do that?) I simply visited a church I hadn’t attended in four years. It was not a good parting. I expected the absolute worst when I walked in that Sunday. I expected a cold reception, if any, and memorized a few smart-ass comments to shoot off just in case. The experience turned out better than I thought, but I used it as an exercise to study my reaction to the uncomfortable experience, my motivations for withdrawing my membership in the first place, and the reactions of others at my presence there. The tension I created for myself in the moments before walking through the doors is something I want my characters to feel, something I want readers to feel along with the character. Imagine what former members who left under the same duress would think if I told them I went back to visit! Their first question would be “Why?” (or maybe WTF). Then a story emerges.

But that experience taught me that I can’t be afraid to put my beloved characters in bad situations. I can’t be afraid to let them make dumb decisions (with the proper motivation, of course). I can’t be afraid to make them uncomfortable because there is a way out (unless you’ve painted yourself in a corner). And that’s why good stories are hard to forget. It’s the roller coaster ride we writers take readers on that makes for good fiction and memorable stories with great characters.

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About Michelle McGill-Vargas

Michelle hails from Gary, Indiana where she enjoys writing historical fiction, flash fiction, and short stories. Her writings have appeared in "Lutheran Witness", "Splickety Magazine", "The Copperfield Review", and "Typehouse Literary Magazine." She served as vice-president of the Indiana Writers' Consortium. Until the day her historical fiction manuscripts get published, she pays the bills as a special education administrator with a background in deaf education. In October 2018, she will be a contributor to Concordia Publishing House's quarterly devotional series "Portals of Prayer." Visit her blog at www.michellemcgillvargas.wordpress.com
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2 Responses to Putting Characters in Sticky Situations

  1. Mirel Abeles says:

    What a great post, Michele! I’m actually laboring over that issue with a character in my novel. She has had a really traumatic life, and towards the end of the book, I have a scene in which she discovers that a trauma she went through had less of a far-reaching consequence than she had feared. And I’m debating whether or not to keep that scene or to omit it. It’s not as if I’d be sugar-coating her life, she’s had it plenty hard. Well, going through one more revision, so I have time to thing about it.

    But I think that growing in our craft also helps us grow as people, as you so beautifully demonstrated. As we risk more along with our characters, we grow with them. I’ve been shocked by some of the amazingly wise things some of my characters have said, and have learned from them. I know it sounds weird, but some characters have said things I never would have thought of. It came from them, but enriched me.

    • Thanks and congratulations on the book! You’re an excellent writer. Glad you liked the post. What you said about characters saying things you’ve never thought of–that was gold and so true! Sometimes those”sticky situations” we put them in can bring that out of them.

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