Writers Write is a comprehensive resource for writers. In this post, we give you three ways to get your characters into trouble when you’re writing a book.
‘In nature, there are neither rewards nor punishments–there are consequences.’ ~Robert G. Ingersoll
Does the punishment fit the crime?
One of the reasons there was such outrage and controversy over Oscar Pistorius’s verdict of culpable homicide is that people were dissatisfied with the less than spectacular outcome of one of the decade’s most sensational trails. There should be massive consequences for a bad deed, shouldn’t there?
Unlike real life, writers can make fictional characters face consequences. You can do this by exaggerating or amplifying the results of your character’s actions, or by exposing something that has been hidden.
How To Get Your Characters Into Trouble
Consequence is the result of our actions or our inaction. In a satisfying story, the character’s decision must be a result of facing a problem or a result of careless or impulsive behaviour. Bad behaviour works best.
- Example: A teenage girl decides to sneak of the house to go to a party. She thinks the only the consequence will be to be grounded by her parents—until she and her friends are involved in a car accident. The police arrive and they’ve been drinking. The problem is now bigger.
- But good intentions, as the saying goes, can set your character on the road to hell. Example: A businessman stops to give a lift to a woman and her toddler, only to be pursued by the woman’s violent estranged husband. Again, we exaggerate the consequence to create more conflict.
As a writer, another technique you can use is amplification – make a relatively small problem much worse. This works well when you want to create a sense of absurdity or comedy in your story.
- Example: A neurotic boyfriend believes that if he doesn’t find the perfect engagement ring for his girlfriend, their marriage will be doomed. He can’t seem to find what he’s looking for—so the frustrated fiancée ends up dumping him.
- Example: A writer’s criticism of another author turns into a lifelong literary feud.
Sometimes a character’s deepest fear is to be exposed—to a secret, the truth, pain. It’s human nature to avoid suffering at all costs but as a writer you must become a bit of a sadist. Find a way to tap into a character’s fear and make that fear tangible in every scene of your story.
- Example: A timid kid is tormented by a school bully to the point where his only choice is to continue being hurt or to fight back—the pain of humiliation must become stronger than a fear of weakness.
PS: I’ll kill you
Of course, the possibility of death is the greatest consequence. Don’t be afraid to push your character to the edge—where their decisions will mean they will either live or die.
- Example: An unarmed detective is held at gunpoint by a kidnapper and must use his training and instinct to talk his way out of being shot in the head.
The Easy Way or The Hard Way
As writers, we can’t shield our characters from pain or consequence. Go for total exposure. Make it massively difficult for them to achieve the thing they want or to solve a problem. When it comes to the easy way or the hard way, the hard way is always better.