So, how do you go about developing those difficulties for your story people?
1. You create a sympathetic character. If we don’t care about your protagonist, we won’t care whether or not she gets what she wants.
2. Next, you put her in trouble—not just a misfortune or two—but horrible, inescapable trouble that she can’t easily walk away from. You make the stakes high. The worst trouble, of course, is death, but you don’t have to kill off your protagonist. The potential loss of a loved one is often more devastating. That’s why so many stories put the protagonist’s child or significant other in peril. We watch with anxiety and tension until the situation is resolved and then with relief when our favorite characters are safe.
3. You need a crucible, a place or situation that has no apparent escape. Crucibles come in various forms. It can be a place of physical entrapment, or it can be circumstances in which the character has a strong emotional or moral investment. Books and movies make use of crucibles all the time. “Das Boot” is the story of the crew in a sub (the crucible) that goes deeper and deeper to avoid the enemy, to the point where water pressure is crushing the hull. In “Castaway,” Tom Hanks plays a FedEx executive who nears death as his plane (a crucible) crashes and he struggles to reach a deserted island (another crucible).
A crucible can be a broken elevator plunging toward doom, a bank where hostages have been taken, a cave with no apparent exit or a packed city bus with a bomb that will explode if its speed drops below 50 miles per hour.
In my first novel, The Starlite Drive-in, I used a crucible that was both emotional and physical. Teal, the mother in the story, was agoraphobic and hadn’t left the house in five years. The husband, who managed a drive-in theater in Indiana, wanted to move to Southern California where a drive-in could stay open all year, but he was as trapped as his wife was because he loved her and wouldn’t leave her.
Other examples of people in crucibles are a father who travels to a distant country because his kidnapped daughter is there, a woman who stays in a marriage with a mentally ill man because she is committed to her wedding vows, or children who are too young to leave drug-addicted parents. I read a book about a small town whose residents were so afraid of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic that they wouldn’t let any outsider enter. One of the worst crucibles of all is the moral dilemma, as shown in William Styron’s classic book, Sophie’s Choice, about a mother in World War II Auschwitz who is forced to choose which of her two children will die. Her unbearable decision to sacrifice her daughter to the gas chamber haunts her for the rest of her life.
4. You need a story that has internal and external conflict inherent in it. Emotion rises out of conflict and conflict rises out of emotion. Your protagonist must struggle, often to the point of death. In the Hero’s Journey, the classic story structure based on Joseph Campbell’s mythic studies, that scene in a novel is known as “death and rebirth.”
I was fortunate enough once to sit at a dinner next to Christopher Vogler, who wrote the international bestseller The Writer’s Journey, a seminal book on structuring powerful plots. His step-by-step guide has many parts, such as the “first threshold,” the “ordeal” and the ”road back.” I asked Vogler what he considered the most important component in the Hero’s Journey structure. He immediately responded, “The death and rebirth.” The hero must struggle so hard and be so beaten down that the reader believes he won’t make it. The death doesn’t have to be literal. It can be the loss of a dream, a relationship, a contest, even a boxing match—anything that’s so important the hero is willing to risk his life for it.
It is the crisis in the story that provides the most tension. If the hero has struggled enough, he will survive and be reborn as a changed person. The mythic structure mirrors real life because anyone who endures a terrible crisis will emerge as a different person, hopefully stronger and wiser. That transformation is called a character arc. Our experiences change who we are, both in real life and in a well-crafted story.
In my last blog, I talked about the power of a good story concept. Look at your novel’s plot. Does the concept cause serious trouble for your protagonist? Do you give your characters significant moral dilemmas? Do you put enough pressure on them so they'll reveal their true natures? Are they strong enough to survive the physical and emotional tests that you (the author) will put them through? At the end of the story, will they be reborn because of their struggles?
Readers worry about characters they like and are fascinated by characters who must fight to achieve something important. They admire heroic and noble acts. They respect the underdog who triumphs over seemingly impossible odds. A skilled fiction writer knows that a novel without conflict, emotion and a crisis that tests the protagonist is a blank page.