How to Create Problems for Your Characters That Force Them to Grow
Are your stories feeling slow and boring? You might be making things too easy for your characters. So how do you create problems for your characters, make them uncomfortable, and challenge them?
Most of us try to avoid hard things. We have traffic apps to help us steer clear of wrecks and construction on the roadway. We espouse slogans like “work smarter, not harder.” We love hacks, apps, and tips to make most anything easier or more comfortable.
But what if the hard thing is the best way to become the people we want to be? What if we’re avoiding the very thing that holds the key to our growth?
Sometimes as writers, we let our characters settle for the easy life. What is the default state for your main character? Where is he most comfortable? You’ve got to get the character out of that state as quickly as possible.
Sources of Discomfort
Discomfort is a quick way to get your character out of stasis, and it can come from any number of sources. It can be internal, where the character’s insecurities, fear, or flaw cause intense discomfort.
Discomfort can come from a relationship or another character who makes your protagonist uncomfortable through a break up, an unethical request, or just plain rudeness.
It can come from difficult circumstances beyond the character’s control — an illness, a storm, or an accident.
Or discomfort can come through a character’s poor choices, which can amplify any of these other sources. Mix and match to see what stresses your character out most.
The Hardest Thing
Once you have a good list of uncomfortable situations or choices that complicate your character’s life, you can turn to the larger obstacles. What would be the hardest thing for your character to do? What does he avoid at every turn?
Make a list of the hard things he or she avoids. It probably isn’t climbing Mount Everest or running an ultramarathon (although it could be — those are both hard things). For some characters, quitting a job might be their Mount Everest. For others, it might be crossing the street. Use that difficult action to push your character out of the status quo.
You can also challenge a character emotionally. What is the emotionally difficult thing for your character? Being vulnerable? Honest? Is it difficult for her to be humble or does she refuse to ask for help?
Explore what makes those things so difficult for the character. Then, exploit them.
Force Your Character Grow Through Action
Now that you know the complications and hardest thing your character could face, you can help your character grow. Put your character in a situation that requires at least one of those challenging choices. Better yet, make them choose between the two hardest things, and make them struggle through it.
In a short story or novel, the hardest thing is likely near the climax, and it might even be the crisis. Build to it using the smaller complications and discomfort, letting your character fail and make small strides as you go.
At the very least, recognize that as you struggle to figure out what the hardest things are for your character, you yourself are persevering through the writing practice that will make you stronger over time. Stick with it. Writing is often hard, but you can do it!
What are some of the worst (best?) complications you’ve seen characters face that forced them to grow? Share in the comments.
Ready to cause problems for your characters? Take fifteen minutes to think about the protagonist in your work in progress.
Make a list of everything you can think of that makes them uncomfortable, big or small. If you have time, brainstorm a scene in which they’re forced to face the thing that makes them most uncomfortable.
Don’t have a work in progress? Create a new character based on this prompt: she really hated getting caught in the rain. Take fifteen minutes to list out what else makes her uncomfortable, and why.
When you’re done, share your practice in the comments, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
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