Ignore this at your peril.
I once edited a political thriller whose central character was homosexual and autistic (I’ve changed a few details here). While our country has made strides as concerns tolerance, even today the notion of living openly gay is rife with conflict.
But the author chose not to explore it; to him the topic felt clichéd.
And I’m thinking, huh.
But he still has that autism angle, right? Again, societal acceptance has grown as we learn more about this condition, but still—to actively participate in the plot, this character will be fighting an uphill battle that most would consider heroic. The stuff of great story!
But this author swung wide—he decided he wants the autism to be completely accepted in the world of his story.
And I’m thinking, huh.
And I'm concluding: Where’s the story?
Authors love their characters, I know. “Going too easy” on them is a problem developmental editors comment upon all the time. But I don’t usually have to apply that comment until the middle of the book, where instead of rising action, I find the protagonist meeting the same type of challenge over and over to similar results. Or until the climax, where the author stops just short of exerting the kind of pressure on his character that might create believable, permanent change in her life.
But this author refused to allow enough conflict to get his story underway. His reasoning: he wanted to write a happy story.
Well, he had “happy. He just didn’t have “story.”
James N. Frey, author of How to Write Damn Good Novel, says that the best plots force our characters to act at “maximum capacity.” We get to know these characters by how they act when pushed into a corner. In a recent two-day workshop, Frey plotted an entire book-length thriller by entertaining suggestions from the group of fifty workshop participants. In many cases he rejected one plot point after the other (role modeling perfectly what we as authors must do), admonishing participants not to lay down too many clues.
“You want to make it too easy on the hero,” Frey kept saying. His implication was two-fold: How can the hero be heroic if his task is too simple? And if the obstacle surmounted is like hopping over a toothpick, how can the author expect readers to care?
Instead, Frey urged us to think of how this character would solve the puzzle at hand if he could not find an obvious clue. This step often forced the hero into relationship with others in the story—not all of whom he desired relationship with—and to dig into his past to unearth long forgotten or undervalued skills. Pushing the character to the wall renewed creative effort on the part of the plotters by provoking our “inner reader”: “No clues? Oh no! What will our character do?”
I’m all for writing happy stories. Life offers up enough chaotic tragedy. But we’ll only remember your book as a “happy story” if your protagonist faces an extreme challenge--and then surmounts it. Even children delight in conflict—as soon as that Cat in the Hat appears in Dr. Seuss, they know he’s going to be trouble!
To earn their keep, all of your main characters should act at maximum capacity. If the villain in the political thriller I mentioned worked at maximum capacity, he would embrace his knowledge of the character’s vulnerabilities—including homosexuality and autism—to thwart him. You know he would. Otherwise, what kind of lame antagonist would he be?
I give this author high marks for giving his character conflict-laden traits, but there's no point in doing so if he won't make use of them. He worries too much about cliché. If you have created in your character a fully dimensional individual whose goals are pitted against the goals of an antagonist—whether that be a person, society, inner demons, or Mother Nature herself—your story will not be clichéd.
It will be interesting.
Once that conflict is set up, apply enough pressure to your protagonist so that she acts at maximum capacity—please! Your readers will love it. And should she triumph over the obstacles set before her, I guarantee your readers remember your book as the happy story you set out to write.
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, a manuscript evaluation, line editing, and writer support service. Before her switch to writing women's fiction and memoir ten years ago, she was a dance critic for 19 years.