Stories that sweep us away have a magical quality. Indeed, we most often associate the swept away feeling with fairy tales. Other types of story sweep us away too, though. Though we may not recognize our capture in those terms, stories as diverse as dark crime, Western sagas and realistic YA can weave a spell around us.
We are enchanted.
What does it really mean to be swept away? How do black and white words on the page produce that effect? It’s a big topic touching upon everything from protagonists to poisoned apples. For today, let’s look at what it is about protagonists that can help weave that spell.
Characters who sweep us away have qualities in common. They face problems born of our deepest fears. They have great loves and are loved by others. They may let those others down, but they learn from their failures and redeem themselves. They have traits we wish we had. They act for the right reasons. They do things admirable and heroic against impossible odds.
Impossible odds. That probably sounds to you like a story quality only useful to J.R.R. Tolkien and Fredrick Forsythe. For other story types odds like that don’t apply, right? How can they? Impossible odds are unrealistic. They’re a gimmick. They’re a cheap way to pump up a story. They’re okay for mass entertainment but antithetical to art. No need to worry about them when your goal is to mirror life and move hearts, correct?
I disagree. As human beings, we don’t experience life as a continuous flow of mild rises and descents, for the most part unremarkable and lacking drama. Our inner lives are more like The Odyssey or Aida. Our trials are epic and our tribulations are arias in an opera.
Remember dating? You see my point. Our lives are, to us, larger than life. What we crave from stories for the most part is not a mirror pond reflection of reality but to sail through a Nor’easter in a vessel with torn sails. We dream of glory. We want heroes like us. We want to prevail over impossible odds, as we do in our minds. We want to be swept away.
Stories are not life. I don’t believe they’re intended to be. The illusion of reality is perhaps—not always but to some degree—necessary for us to override our rational faculties and accept the fictional situation. But the important part of “illusion of reality” is illusion. It’s not merely okay to exaggerate in stories and portray events that in the real world are unlikely to happen, it’s absolutely essential. It’s what stories do.
Every story has a moral map. Every story is political. Whether affirming common values or challenging them, every story has a point. Stories also celebrate faith, endurance, seeking, striving, and reaching for what is good and right. Stories are a testimony to human spirit, agency, autonomy, capacity and skill. They do not say we are helpless, but rather that we are strong. They don’t say we can’t, but that we can.
When we are fired for the right reasons, nothing can stop us. No force is too great to defeat us. We can face even death and come through. That core truth is what stories affirm through their heightened events.
So, impossible odds. They can be built into any story. Anything that a character wants or needs can become impossible to obtain. They key to creating that feeling is asking not what circumstances will make your protagonist’s goal impossible, but who. The key is the antagonist. Not the Jackal or the Eye of Sauron, necessarily, but someone because of whom your protagonist will experience defeat.
Consider your current manuscript. What does your protagonist want? I mean, in the big sense? Think the greatest desire of his or her heart.
Now ask, who does not want your protagonist to have that? For whom is it a threat? For whom is it an injustice? For whom is your protagonist’s desire a dream to be damned and destroyed?
Next, what can this antagonist do about it? How many ways can this antagonist work against your hero or heroine? Give this antagonist more power, more time, more ingenuity. Think of everything. Is there any way out? Any hope left? Snuff it out. Enact defeat. That is what it means to face impossible odds. Hope is lost. A form of death must be faced.
Do those steps sound to you drastic, cheap, unreal or implausible? Is such an antagonist too much for your story?
Here’s the final step: Make your antagonist’s actions plausible. Work with the characters you’ve got and the rules in the world you’ve created. Antagonists can be anyone from supervillains to librarians. (Sorry, librarians.) Evil motives are okay for fables and fairy tales, but the best motives for antagonists are persuasive. When antagonists rub their hands in evil glee we might be entertained, but when they are justified we fear.
Any story, no matter how gentle its world or how humble its characters, can enact impossible odds. Don’t believe me? Re-read Watership Down. Rabbits up against impossible odds? Facing death? Hazel and the other refugees from Sandleford warren do exactly that. Think Redwall. My Friend Flicka. Pride and Prejudice. Mild as are the worlds of those stories, their protagonists nevertheless have powerful desires and outsized antagonists.
Impossible odds have paradoxical effects: the greater the impossibility the more we hope. The more fatal a protagonist’s flaw, the more we believe. The bigger a defeat, the more our hearts break. We cheer the loudest when protagonists cannot win. When we face death itself, we are transported and swept away, more alive than ever.
Could impossible odds work in your current manuscript? What is your protagonist’s greatest desire and who opposes it? What does it mean to face death in your story?
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