In the past week, I had a real-life adventure I didn’t see coming. It started when I travelled down to the Vancouver area to attend a three day writing retreat.
The retreat was fantastic and the energy to write had me in it’s grip so I decided to book a hotel and do some more writing and also visit family.
No one told me I’d end up trapped and unable to get home because of washed out roads, landslides, and floods.
A lot happened in a very short period of time.
Heck, an entire city was evacuated when the water treatment plant was compromised and all water was unusable. Imagine.
On a different road at the same time, families were trapped between mudslides and unable to get out–some were swept off the road by a wall of water, mud, trees, and boulders. It must’ve been terrifying, not to mention cold, to spend the night in the dark with a bunch of strangers.
It’s when disasters and challenges like this happen in our lives, that unique truths and personality traits can surface. There’s a lot of helping and support, but some react with panic, fear, or resilience (just to mention a few).
This got me thinking about how our characters react–or perhaps fail to react–in our stories. Sometimes characters can end up too predictable or EEK–dare I say–boring. THAT is the worst!
Here are some ways you can make your character more active and get yourself (as a writer) into the habit of making them pivot in a disaster (as above) or in “real” novel life. Enjoy.
Make It Difficult on Your Character
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever learned at a conference was:
Chase your character up a tree and then throw rocks at him.Kelly Armstrong, Author
This sounds mean, but if you can keep this thinking going as you write then you constantly have an active player.
If you picture someone who’s trapped but still has things thrown at them, then they have to:
- Act–short of getting whacked in the head by a stone, they need to DO something.
- Make the best of a situation or give up
- Decide whether to jump… What’s below? Is one way safer? Picture the tree–maybe they can go up? Use that writer imagination.
- Make a CHOICE
- Fall into further peril–perhaps a pool full of sharks? break their leg when they land? or lose their glasses?
These types of situations are similar to seeing a character walk through the door that’s part way open. They know it was locked when they left and no one should be there…. But they push the door open anyway. Dang.
Why don’t they call 911? Why not keep driving? But NO…what happens? They’re put into a situation (up the tree) where we know things will happen (rocks) and they’ll have to do something (act/choose/give up etc.)
This is called…tension.
A story needs tension and those steps or decisions made by the character are what make it exciting for the reader.
Tension comes through distraction, the unknown, obstacles, and of course by being chased up a tree and pummelled with rocks.
Don’t think of tension as aggravation or stress… It’s more about the unknown–the pivoting, if you like.
When I was a new writer I was told I needed to add tension. The word makes me think of fighting or aggression when in this case it’s meant to be more of a catalyst to keep the reader engaged and turning the page.
Tension in your story should surround your characters and their actions. There should be urgency and significance to what they’re doing and the choices they make. It should move the story forward and keep it going.
Put them in situations that will force them to choose. Remember, that character of yours is up a tree trying to dodge rocks you’re tossing at him. The decisions he makes and the path he chooses will show a lot about his personality and goals.
Don’t ever go easy on that character… choose a larger rock.
Here are some example of situations that can cause tension:
- Having a schedule change. Oh oh…now what?
- Being trapped in a strange city by a storm. Who will the character meet in the bar? hmmm…possibilities.
- An unplanned pregnancy. Is it secret? or celebrated?
- A found journal. What’s in it?
- You meet your husband’s new boss and he’s your ex-boyfriend or maybe your current lover or someone who tried to kill you… don’t be afraid to reach.
- A medical diagnosis.
- A car/plane/train/boat/skateboard accident.
- Breakdown of family.
- Anything that is unexpected.
- Something that needs to be dealt with one way or another.
Often these examples can end up a bit clique, so be aware of that. This can happen in the love triangle type of story… which one will she choose? If something feels obvious to you, do the opposite–it’s much more fun.
If you’re writing and your character is starting to feel a bit boring or isn’t doing anything, take them somewhere. Perhaps they can go to the local burger joint only to then find themselves as a witness to a brazen daytime robbery. The possibilities are endless and you can stretch the reality as far as you want.
Does the character end up…
- recognizing the robber? Maybe it’s his daughter? or grandmother?
- is taken hostage?
- shot? beat up? knifed?
- maybe even killed?
- save the life of a child and end up on the front page of a newspaper where someone recognizes him?
- perhaps he chases after one of them?
You can take it from there.
The key is to make that character move–to do something, because this changes the focus and the landscape where things can happen.
The thing to remember is the constant shake up.
Also Remember: Internal Tension or Uncertainty are Also Great Character Traits. Apply this to the uniqueness of the writing style, story, and genre. Each character is different but here are a few ideas…
- A great character may question themselves.
- Should I or shouldn’t I?
- Why didn’t I?
- Self doubt and insecurities may creep in.
- A character needs to be real and ask himself why he allowed himself to be driven up the tree in the first place.
- The character should be likeable if the reader is going to spend a bunch of time with them.
- What are his/her/their redeeming qualities?
- Don’t make them so perfect that they can’t change and grow. They need to learn something–anything.
- The character who has a gut feeling but doesn’t listen….awesome.
- Confusion and choice are huge.
- Internal conflict where they’re having to make a decision and why they chose a certain direction.
- Controversy. Perhaps your character isn’t really who they say they are?
- Is there mistrust? or disbelief? this can be directed toward the character or come from within the character. So many possibilities.
- Don’t make your character a gratuitous liar or cheat without adding one redeeming quality. Maybe he likes cats or weasels. Something…
- Is your character suspicious? perhaps of all those around him or an individual?
The possibilities go on and on.
The most important thing is that your characters develop into an entity the reader or listener can identify with, and can illicit some sort of emotional response. The response doesn’t need to be happy/sad, it can be satisfaction (ie. when the bad guy falls to his death) or a sense of relief (when someone survives). Don’t be boxed in by the obvious–Let that imagination soar.
Tension in writing, is not typically about physical conflict or fighting, it’s about pushing the limits of the scene to make it compelling, exciting, captivating, and a must read.
Thank you for reading my post. I hope you enjoyed it. Don’t forget to like and comment. Thank you.