Character, Conflict and Setting. Together, they’ll either help the story flow or they’ll bring it to a grinding halt. When the latter happens, the writer is left wondering what went wrong and why the characters aren’t so vivid and active any longer. (It turned out to be one of those “dang, I should have seen it” things for me.) Here is an example of what I mean.
Last night, I was thinking about a story and a problem I was having with it. It’s not one of my current WIP. It’s one I’m trying to get into shape by working on it in my spare time in a notebook, handwriting it. (It’s one of the ways I relax. Handwriting feels different than sitting in front of screen and typing.)
Just as reference, this isn’t a plotted out story, not in any way. I was feeling my way through the story, letting the characters lead. (I generally plot short stories or stories that I want to be shorter than novel length, otherwise the characters will take the scenic route to their happily ever after. It doesn’t guarantee a short story, but it usually helps.)
I have a strong female lead and she’s got a mission. I like that, but the flow of the story seemed strained and somehow not true to the character. The female lead was balking and I began to wonder why. Since I was pantsing the story, I was expecting surprises and a false start or two before I found the right track, but not this soon.
So I began to look at everything that would affect my lead female–the people around her, the conflict between her and others, the setting, her goals and the outer conflict. It seemed that everything was there that was needed.
So why was she balking? Why was the story feeling strained, forced?
So here’s what came to me. She had too much of a safety net. Both the people and the setting around her gave her too much of a cushion. No room for mistakes or failure. For her, there was very little risk. She couldn’t show off how strong she was, what she was good at. For her character to grow and really shine, I need to take away that security and put her out on a limb.
That’s not to say she wasn’t in danger and uncomfortable before. She was definitely in trouble, physically and emotionally (because that’s what a writer is supposed to do–put the character in trouble and let the character work his or her way out of it). In this case though, she needs more than in trouble. She needs to go back to her roots. Relying on her skills and her mind to get her out of the situation she finds herself in.
The problem was with how I’d handled the conflicts, setting and people surrounding her. I’d taken the strong woman out of her known element, but left her surrounded by people she knew would guard and watch over her. She had a mission, but it wasn’t challenging her enough to accomplish it. Again, those people around her, her belief that they’d make sure she was safe.
While danger might get to her or be around her, she wasn’t worried. She didn’t have to do anything. All of these are big RED flags looking back on it.
If it was any other character, the situation would probably be fine. This heroine isn’t those other women though. She has a history. This character was feeling stifled by the rules at the beginning. It should have been a clue that she needed more than getting out of that setting.
I didn’t see her attitude toward the rules as anything too important at the beginning. It was something I was going to explore as the story progressed and how she reacted to what was put in front of her. But her character was stifled by the situation and she didn’t have much chance to react when things shut down.
Some characters can be in the middle of a large support system and the conflict still feel immediate and threatening. With this lead character, it wasn’t really the case. She was too comfortable, surrounded by what she knew and the people she knew would be there for her. In essence, she was bored, other than a few tense spots.
So I know where I went wrong now and I’m working on fixing the mess. My advice from this would be to pay attention to the fine details of your lead’s character and if the story isn’t working, change something, location sometimes works. Finding yourself in a corner because of a conflict such as this doesn’t mean scrapping everything.
Changing one small piece can change the entire story and the way the characters relate to each other and their surroundings. And you can get back to writing the story, just as I am now.