Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Pitfalls

How many bad things do you throw at your protagonist before you begin to think that perhaps you’ve hit them so many times the readers won’t believe s/he could still get up? You want to throw roadblocks in the protag’s way. Things can’t be too easy, be your book a mystery or a romance or sci-fi/fantasy. In order to be worthy of the prize at the end of the story, though, the protagonist must have gone through the “fire” to prove their worthiness.

I thought about this as I sat at my son’s computer and pondered the roadblocks popping up in my pathway. I’ve recently had a couple of big roadblocks, such as being called up for two months of federal jury duty. Then I’ve hit a couple of smaller bumps, like totally screwing up the front end of my husband’s car (long story) and having my computer die on me for the third time in four years and being stuck without a computer, which explains why I’m on my son’s computer at the moment.

Since this is real life, my life, I think I’ve had enough road blocks thrown my way. But probably not if I were a character. We throw more at them, more than we ourselves would want to handle. If we didn’t, readers would think, oh that was too easy … or they’d think, why did I waste my time on this book, I had it figured out after five pages … or, quit whining for heaven’s sake, just tell her you love her and move on to happily ever after since there’s nothing in your way.

Our characters not only can, they must take more. True, we have to make those small and large disasters believable and eventually overcome-able, but if your character is on a quest, be it for love or truth or the capture of a killer, then they must solve the problems, save the day, give something of him/her self in order for us to cheer and feel they deserve the reward (and for us to feel that we, too, deserve the reward, since for that short time, we are the protagonist).

Are you throwing enough at your protagonist? Are you making things difficult? Have you set up this character with enough inner and outer strength to persevere and become the hero? Are you, the author and god of this story, strong enough to test your protagonist?

32 comments:

  1. I liked what Ray Banks did in his four books about P.I. Cal Innes. Cal was knocked about so much that he became addicted to pain killers, had a stroke and then ...well, that was as far asi it could go.

    Although I do like the superhero types like Matt Hilton's Joe Hunter, too.

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  2. Ha! After reading your post, Helen, I think I need to throw some more at them! Real life can be rough...fiction should be rougher!

    I can't believe you've got *2 months* of jury service! You must be an upstanding citizen. :) The defense atty couldn't wait to get rid of me..

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  3. I probably didn't throw them at him as fast as life has hit you!

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  4. as I revise the plot part of my wip this is what I keep in mind! I need daily reminders of it. I always want to fix their lives - boring....

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  5. I'm still sort of hoping I'll be dismissed and hoping I won't be. It would be very interesting but I'm having to request to be excused for certain days & some uncertain days. I'll know for sure at the end of this month.

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  6. If you end up serving, there will be so much fodder to write about! Good luck with you computer and all the bumps in the road.

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  7. Life kicks us down to make us stronger...? I am never sure about that saying. The bruises hurt at times. I hope you get some plain sailing soon. :)

    How will you be able to concentrate in court? As Liza said, all that fodder about.

    Characters and plot in one room!

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  8. Timely topic. :) Like Jan, I have to remember not to 'fix' their lives.

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  9. This is a great topic! I've noticed in my writing the best possible ideas come from the thought - what is the worst thing that could happen to this character right now? Short of death or something that just does't fit, it leads to some very fun, very challenging scenarios.

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  10. I admire the way Colin Dexter develops the character of Inspector Morse. After years of "drinking his meals," Morse begins to deteriorate physically. Each successive ailment is woven into the plot as an obstacle to Morse both personally and professionally. I hate to watch as Dexter "throws" these problems at his protagonist, but in refusing to spare Morse pain (and mortality), Dexter adds depth to the character and lifts the books to a higher level.

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  11. I’d like to think I could answer yes to all those questions, but after reading about your roadblocks, I might have to go back and take a look at my latest manuscript. Hope your roadblocks are lifted soon.

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  12. Whether minor or major, there's always something for my characters to deal with, and I try to keep much of it tied in with the main conflict going on.

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  13. You're right. Without conflict and resolution there is no story - just a nice scene.

    Good luck on the computer front.
    ~jon

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  14. I'm glad to hear this, Helen. I've thrown so much @ Simon, I was worried. But now I think I'm on the right track :)

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  15. Two months? Yikes. Sorry about the car and the computer. Pitfalls are crappy. This is a helpful post, as I am just beginning to venture into a story arc for my new WIP. Thanks for the heads up.
    Karen

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  16. A couple characters got a heavy load, but not all.
    Sorry about the computer! Buy two so you'll have a back-up.

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  17. Great reminder not to hold back, Helen. Early on in my writing I had a hard time throwing stuff at my characters as I personally dislike conflict so much. I had to learn to step aside and let stuff happen to my characters. As one of my writing partners used to say, "Where's the beef of the story?"

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  18. Good point, Helen. Sometimes I think I clobber my characters too much! I've been told I'm way too mean to them. But now, after reading this, I don't feel so bad.

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  19. One of the things my husband mentioned when he read my MS, "Seems like they were always getting hurt. They never had any time to recover." I had 80,000 words to get them through. I felt like they had to recover pretty dang fast, but I also think he had a point.

    Good post, I enjoyed reading.

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  20. I agree with your husband Elizabeth. I don't believe books where the protagonist is practically killed in one scene then is up and running in the next.

    Does liking to throw problems and setbacks at our characters make writers bad people? Nah.

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  21. Jury duty must be interesting. Keep ears and eyes open, and you'll pick up a lot of stuff for your writing >:)

    Cold As Heaven

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  22. I kinda wonder what it says about my psyche that I enjoy throwing troubles at my characters. I do worry about them though - and it's okay, cause I know they'll make it through... Right? I hope so! :)

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  23. I might be naughty, but I am ALSO a pretty nice person, and I have a HARD time being as rotten to my MC if my MC is really nice--easier to be rotten to a more flawed MC... So I have not always thrown as many, and I think that is my answer.

    You also made me think of another... you are having computer problems and car problems (and possibly husband problems, depending on how understanding he is) and then there are the CONSTANT obstacles thrown up in the publishing environment... so you have repeated constant little things of one sort that you are working away at... then from another direction comes a doozy... then the REALLY unrelated one... I think that might READ unrealistic, but in reality its NOT--and if you can tie the things TOGETHER in the story, maybe they won't seem so, and will be more interested than just constantly the same type of obstacles...

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  24. You're right Watery Tart, in a book we tend to throw obstacles that are plot-related. In real life, that's not the case. That is the difference between the real world and the book world.

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  25. Sounds like something I should be thinking about. Thanks.

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  26. You won't be alone, Sheila. I'm thinking about it, too.

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  27. Good blog. I have a number of fight scenes and need to be realistic. A character can take a few direct hits and remain standing, but that's about all.

    In the real world one punch can kill a person, maime them for life, or at least knock them out cold.

    Stphen Tremp

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  28. I think that's what I take most from the books I read; the life that gets lived. And it makes me more sympathetic to the character. To me, all the dramas and problems are most relatable.

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  29. Sorry to hear about your roadblocks, Helen. I hope you get a new computer soon.

    As for throwing roadblocks up for your protagonist, the only rule of thumb I know is for each one to grow bigger and worse as the plot progresses. And above all, make them original. Hanging over the cliff by one's fingertips has definitely been overdone. :)

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  30. I have to think of the protag differently than I would for me. That's a rescent developement. So I'm learning to set up various roadblocks to put in their way. It gets easier but I still cringe for my poor characters, lol!

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  31. I need to keep this in mind as I am revising. Very helpful. Thank you, Helen.

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