Torture Your Characters

Writing is about conflict.  Without problems, we’d just have a bunch of characters wandering around while nothing happened, and that wouldn’t be any fun to write or read.  A tortured character is one that evokes sympathy in readers and creates a greater investment in the outcome.

Creating conflict can be challenging, though, so I’m going to share a writing exercise that I use to figure out exactly how I want to torture my characters.

If you’re new to writing and don’t know a lot about conflict and tension in writing, I suggest visiting Fiction Factor, where there are some great articles on why stories need conflict and some basic ways to add tension to your writing.

My trick is something I like to call “Bad and Worse.”  This particular exercise works best when you know who your characters are and you have a general idea of where you want your story to end up, but the hows and the whats along the way are giving you trouble.

All you have to do is take a fairly boring scenario, make it bad, and then make it even worse.  Keep doing this until you feel like you have a story full of conflict.  It’s that easy.

Here’s what I mean:

You have a character named Jason that wants to be an astronaut.  We have a name and an ambition.  That’s a good starting point.  Let’s say he’s a high school student, and the basic story is his journey to become an astronaut.  We can find out the basic points of that from a little research: He’ll have to go to college, get a job in the field, learn to pilot jet aircraft, pass physical examinations, and make it through candidate school.

Once you have your basic idea and know a few things about the topic, you get started by trying to think of something that would be bad for your character along the way to achieving his dream.

Bad would be if he didn’t have good enough grades to get into the college or university he wanted to get into.  Worse, would be if he failed out of college right before graduating.  Bad would be making it though college, but being unable to find a job to get experience.  Worse would be finding a job, getting his experience, and failing the physical examination to enter the candidate program.  Bad would be passing the physical exam and failing candidate school, etc.

Things can always be worse for a character.  You’ll notice that some of those outcomes are a little more heartbreaking than others.  Getting close to the goal and then facing a setback is a lot more heartbreaking than a setback early on, so those later in the list are more challenging and provide greater conflict for your story.

Now it’s time to use those points you came up with to make a story.  You have two options: You can take your original point, and use the bad and worse elements as layers of the starting point, or they could be separate incidents altogether.  For example, maybe when Jason decides he wants to be an astronaut, he’s already a bad student, so part of the struggle is bringing his grades up.  You need separate plot elements though, Jason could be a great student, but maybe he takes a math class, and the teacher hates him, so he fails and risks his dream in the process.  See the difference?  Both are viable, interesting options, so you have to figure out which way gives you more to work with, and what you want the main conflict to be.

Keep in mind that you can’t just have one setback, though.  You’ll want to have one major problem that ends up being the climax of the story, but you’ll also need lots of little ones along the way to keep readers engaged.  Even though readers would probably want Jason to reach his goals, the story wouldn’t be interesting if it was just this one plot line.  That’s why subplots need conflict too, so decide what you want to use as a subplot and repeat the process.

Maybe Jason’s mother is sickly.  Bad would be if he couldn’t go away to school because she was ill.  Worse would be if he went anyway, she died, and he felt guilty about leaving her, and so on.  By the time you’ve done this a few times, you’ll have a ton of ideas and you just have to pick the ones that fit together to create the most interesting story.

Ta da!  You now have a storyline with tons of conflict.

Do you have any tips for creating more tension in a story?  Leave a comment.

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