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Push Your Characters Hard—Please!

Photo by Reba Bear, via Flickr
Whether intuitively or formally, creative writers learn early on that conflict drives story.

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.

Former BRP contributor Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her series of posts here at BRP "Countdown to a Book," details the traditional publication of her debut novel, The Art of Falling, by Sourcebooks, available from Her series, "Turning Whine into Gold," appears at Writers in the Storm. Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.


  1. Thank you! I was having a character issue and this post gave me what I call my "Well, Dummy look at this" moment.

    Giggles and Guns

  2. Thanks for the reminder Kathryn. I hate reading books where the protagonist just floats through life. Who has such a life? Bring on the challenges!

  3. In my most recent post, I referred to the action (which pushes characters to maximum capacity) as the "external force". I've been tormenting myself over this, though. Is it always external? Does it have to be external? What are some examples of an internal force pushing the character's action?

    -- Dominique

    Latest Post: Character: Come to My Johari Window

    To find the paragraph on external force, press Ctrl+ F, type "external force", and click enter.

  4. Great post Kathryn. I think sometimes writers don't push their characters because they're worried how they would get them out of trouble. It's not that they don't trust their characters to overcome; they don't trust themselves as writers. That trust will come if they let go of their own fears and see what their characters do.

    Straight From Hel

  5. Dominique, the force does not have to be external. The character can have a moral or ethical dilemma that forces some of the suspense and drama. In my book, One Small Victory, the central character is driven by two forces -- the real danger and her reluctance to kill anybody. I think combining the external and internal adds another dimension to a story.

    Great post, Katherine.

  6. Dominique:
    Much literary fiction is comprised of characters driven by or trying to overcome internal forces. I don't know if you remember "Ordinary People," which was made into a movie, in which one of two teenaged brothers dies in a boating accident and one lives. The one brother is ruined by guilt and attempts suicide, and his family relationships are strained by a mother who blames the living son while trying to maintain a facade of respectability and a father who is trying to make nice while struggling with his own depression. The story question: will these characters be able to get beyond their feelings concerning their loss in order to function as a family again? Other than fate, not one external force plays upon these characters, yet the story is rife with tension nonetheless. A character's own fear, shame, guilt, grief, or insecurity can create a powerful antagonist in a story.

  7. As a writer, I think it becomes boring if you don't challenge your characters. You give them faults not only to make them more believable and interesting, but to provide challenges. Have a drinking problem? Well, here's a good reason for you to drink, so what are you going to do now? Don't like blood? Guess what, you get to wade through it. What are you going to do now? Plots should be focused fairly heavily on these little character foibles, since readers generally love to see how characters will get past ever-more-difficult problems, and while dealing with villains is always a big problem (if you have that kind of story), it's usually the character driven issues that generate the most interest. In my opinion, such that it is.

  8. Another great post!

    Thanks for sharing:)


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