If you’ve managed to build your character, developed him or her, made them overcome their flaws and weaknesses throughout the story and they have emerged a stronger, better character by the end of it, then you will have engaged the reader not only on an emotional level, but also on a metaphysical level.
All the fears, emotional difficulties, limitations, faults and obstacles the character endures is what your reader will feel, too. Not only are that, but all the conflicts the character has to undergo, are the same ones the reader will share.
How does it Work?
The character is always in a constant state of flux. From beginning to end, there is a constant cycle of conflict, decision making, actions, consequences and development.
There is a simple way to illustrate a character’s path:
The idea is to make your character face almost impossible situations and to test their mettle, to play on those weaknesses or flaws and make them overcome them. This is where tension comes into play, because inner conflicts – the emotional kind especially – drive the character’s development and forces them to change.
Their personal development depends on overcoming those conflicts. If they don’t develop, don’t overcome their flaws or weaknesses, then they will have gained nothing by their experiences and neither will the reader.
Facing their Fears
Another way is to make your main character face his or her deepest fears.
This is a two-fold strategy: the fear is the basis of their conflict – it could be anything, like an object, a person (external conflict) or it could be an emotional or psychological one (inner conflict) – and the development of the character, the strength to rise above and overcome, drives such conflict and therefore they will emerge a changed person at the end of this process.
For instance, I write dark, psychological fiction, I like to explore the human condition, and I’ve easily rendered horror-laden scenes, and yet there is one fear I’ve not yet fully faced – the fear of the dark. Even now, it causes conflict and tension whenever faced with this fear – especially if I don’t have a choice, i.e. a power cut.
One day I may find the strength to overcome it and in so doing it will change me. The same is true of your characters.
Your character’s development depends on your ability to be ruthless; stress them, hurt them through ongoing conflict – emotionally and physically, (remember, the reader is a pillion passenger on this rollercoaster ride) – throw everything you have at them so they grow stronger and better and they work to overcome your fictional onslaught. Remember, characters don’t always make the right decisions so this side of their development also creates conflict and tension, because whatever the choices they make, there will always be a consequence.
The main characters in your story – protagonist and antagonist – both have goals so they are in direct opposition to each other = conflict and tension = consequences. How they reach those goals is up to the writer, of course.
Force their Hand
Another way to drive conflict through characters is to make them do something they would never normally do, something that might conflict with their moral code or their sense of values and personal ethics.
When faced with something that might go against our beliefs, we are faced with a near impossible situation. How do we overcome it? Sometimes we are forced to do something that others might not expect of us.
What of the character had to kill someone in order to protect his or her family? Could they do it, even if it was against their beliefs?
Force them into a corner, force them to make near impossible decisions. This creates conflict and tension, and how the character resolves the situation forms part of his or her personal growth and development.
Some writers make their character fail some of their goals. Even if this happens, the character would have gone through the experience and changed as a person. If there is no change then there is little point to the story.
We’ve all experienced failure – it creates conflict - so how will your character cope? Will they be a stronger person because of it? Is it hard for them to fight back and win the day?
Everything our characters do, the decisions they make, all affect the story pathway and thus it continues to create conflict and tension at every turning point.
Give them problems to solve, make them do things they wouldn’t normally do, force them into corners, force them to make life changing decisions, hurt them, let them develop with these conflicts, but above all make sure their motivation is not lost so that they emerge a different person by the end.
Next week: How many re-writes is too many?