Sunday, September 23, 2012

Make Your Reader Hold Their Breath

From this post, number two reads like this:

When your character trips and stumbles and stops to question themselves, the readers will hold their breath.

So, you’ve got your story arc (or something that remotely resembles some sort of an albeit questionable arc). Maybe you’ve outlined, maybe you’ve jotted down some rough notes, maybe you’ve got the whole damn detailed and coherent synopsis, or maybe it’s all still stewing in your head. Whatever the case may be, cool. This is a good step.

What about your character arc?

First of all, what is a character arc? It runs in tandem with your rising action, and it’s also referred to as character growth/change. Whatever your character is missing in the opening, they obtain it by the end. Your character at the beginning of the story will not be the same character by the climax of your story. This is good. Static characters that are impervious to change won’t resonate with your reader.

Maybe this sounds a bit daunting, but don’t worry: characters tend to take on lives of their own. As soon as you drop them in the story, your character should come alive. Don’t try to control them. They’ll resist. And if they do, let them. They’re real people, and I know this sounds hippie-ish, but treat your characters like real people. If you’re having trouble caring about them, then stop and remember that they’re real people. Make sure you understand their conflicts, their desires, and how these things will be revved up by your story arc.

But the journey from the beginning to the end can’t be easy-peasy. If resolutions and answers are coming to your character without any form of trial or struggles, rethink the story arc. You’re not challenging your character.

How does someone challenge their character?

Bad example:

Cindy wanted a candy cane off the tree. So, she reached up and grabbed a candy cane.

Good example:

Cindy wanted a candy cane off the tree. Pools of lava bubbled at her feet, and she had no shoes. A bottomless mote with a ravenous alligator encircled the tree, and she didn’t know how to swim. The presents were actually bombs in disguise, and she could make out the sound of ticking. She crumbled to her knees and stared at her plastic-wrapped goal, gleaming against the pine needles.

Replace Cindy with your character, replace the pools of lava and the alligator and the bombs with trials, and the candy cane with your character’s goal. Challenge your character. Bring them to the very edge of their abilities and make them teeter and sweat and hesitate.

The despair, the questioning of oneself, the doubt, it’s all part of the growing process. “I’m scared, I don’t know if I can do this” makes the reader think “Try, just try, come on and become awesome.” When a character has worked so hard, earning our respect (in one way or another, no matter how simple or twisted), and they fall, the reader urges that character to get back up and come out wiser and stronger. The reader wants the character to be challenged and to earn their goal, and every trip and stumble along the way is part of that process. And when you come to one of these moments, don’t cheat your character or the reader.

Bad example:

Cindy crumbled to her knees and stared at her plastic-wrapped goal. It was hopeless. Oh, but wait, she had learned how to make a hang glider out of twigs and palm fronds, so she set to work and flew over the traps and plucked the candy cane from the tree.

Good example:

Cindy walked the entire perimeter four times. Her feet burned from the scalding rock. The air was thin in her lungs. She pulled at her hair and stole glances of the path back home. It was hopeless. She couldn’t do this on her own. Maybe the candy cane wasn’t meant for her at all, and maybe the mocking of the kids who had doubted her would wear off after some time. After all, there was nothing she could do.


This adds to the relatable human element of a character, and it’s in these moments that we see the character arc shine through. Even if your main character is the antagonist, readers need that connectable human element – it will make a fan out of your readers, make them bite their nails and turn the page to find out what happens next.

(Also, find part one here!)

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