Let your characters work it out!

Saturday, August 18, 2018
I recently read an article that featured elderly people advising others on living a happy life. Most pearls of wisdom dealt with how to love, while letting go of pain, trauma, and loss. Several spoke of telling and showing people how much you love them, and letting go of all the literal and figurative "stuff" in your life you can't control. Good advice for how to live, but bad advice for your characters.

If literary characters followed these ideas, then many great works of fiction would not exist. What if Dickens had "let go" of his childhood poverty? The line "Please sir, may I have another," might just be a question children ask their fathers when they want another cookie. What if the Old Man had "let go" of his drive for bringing in the great marlin, or if rom-com characters could just tell their secret crushes how they felt? What if Gatsby could have "let go" of his desire for Daisy, or Valdemort wasn't driven to destroy Harry Potter? The plot wouldn't move, that's what.

By letting go of the fixation, these stories would be over before they began. We would skip the internal and external conflict, and move right to the end. There's no hero's journey, and there's no story arc. Characters who deal with those experiences seem human and relatable. We see them solve the problems, and watch them grow as they navigate unfamiliar territory to succeed. We feel their pain. Well-adjusted people have happy lives, but well-adjusted characters without motivation to get the girl (or boy), get even, or get ahead, are boring.

Many writers describe putting their protagonists in sticky situations and then asking themselves, "What's the worst thing that could happen?" They present that worst-case scenario to see how they get out of it, which is a good strategy to draw out the conflict and tension in a story. And since we've all been in love, or dealt with problems beyond our control, we probably get some of our inspiration from life experiences. So, if you can't "let go," in your personal life, my advice is to pass it on to your characters and let them work it out!

Mary Horner earned the Writing Certificate from UM-St. Louis, and teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Mary--Thanks for this post. It will remind me of what my characters need to hold on to, what they need to be driven by, when working on my current WIP.

Margo Dill said...

I totally agree with that asking what is the worst that could happen to these characters--the only thing we have to remember is that eventually we have to get them out of the situation or have an unhappy ending...or an unresolved one...

So basically: let it go might be good advice for our life and for Elsa from Frozen--but not for literary characters! ;)

Renee Roberson said...

Funny you should mention this, Mary. I have a YA work-in-progress that I've been revising for years, and I had an epiphany last week that one of the main characters needs to create more conflict. She creates a little, but for the sake of conflict and tension, I've thought of several other things she can try to do to make the lives of other characters miserable. There are some things she's not going to be able to let go of easily. And it's okay for her to go this route, especially after reading this. Thanks for the confirmation :-)

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