“Be a sadist,” said Kurt Vonnegut. That’s number six on his list of eight creative writing 101 tips. He added, “No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
Vonnegut knew what he was talking about. He made awful things happen to Billy Pilgrim, his leading character in his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. It was not enough to send Pilgrim unprepared into the thick of World War II and have him captured by the enemy, Vonnegut then sends him into the worst firestorm of the war—Dresden in February 1945. And that was just the start of poor Pilgrim’s problems.
Vonnegut’s inspiration came from his own life. He’d been a prisoner of war held in a slaughterhouse in Dresden in February ‘45. Fortunately, it’s not essential to go through quite such a trauma to create great leading characters. There are far easier ways to give your hero a hard time.
For Robert Towne, who won an Oscar in 1974 for his screenplay Chinatown (remember what a rough time he gave Jack Nicholson’s character, Jake Gittes?), the best way to get tough on your hero is to ask: What are you afraid of? If you can discover your characters’ fears, then continually confront them with those fears, you’ll create memorable, engaging characters.
This might sound like every story should be a horror, but that’s not the case. In Chinatown, for example, Jake is obsessed with being a detective, to the point that he’s willing to work for free. His weakness is women, and he wants to protect them. His fear is that a(nother) woman will be harmed or even killed while he feels responsible for her. This fear and this need to protect leads him to misinterpret events and miss important clues, getting in the way of his obsession to be a good detective.
As the author of your story, you can of course simply assign your character a fear. But the best characters, the ones we remember, have personalities—and therefore fears—that are intrinsic to the story. They make sense in the story’s world. To take an extreme example: if the main character of your romance is afraid of snakes, it will only interrupt the story if you then drop that character into a pit of snakes every few chapters for no other purpose than to invoke some tension (except, maybe, if the love interest is a snake charmer).
Here then is one way to get to the depths of your characters’ fears. [Read more…]