Whether you think of yourself as a plot-driven author, a character-driven writer, or one who relies on creating a compelling situation, stuff has to happen on your pages or readers will stop turning them. Stuff that truly tests your characters.
In an excellent recent online essay about plot, novelist and former literary agent Barbara Rogan cites Mark Twain’s advice: “The writer’s job is to chase characters up a tree and throw rocks at them.” Think Huck Finn and Jim on the raft. In other words, keep the problems coming. Readers want to see characters succeed, fail, change, and grow, but, she says, “Characters cannot rise to a challenge that never comes.” I would append this thought “and overcoming a wildly unrealistic challenge doesn’t work, either.” It’s the author’s victory, not the character’s.” Some thrillers cross that line.
Maybe an author starts with an exciting, possibly (fingers crossed) film-worthy opening scene. That and its aftermath are dealt with, then there’s a slog to the skating-on-the-edge-of-disaster conclusion. What happened in the middle? Not enough, very likely. A saggy middle is the bane of new authors and people over 40 alike. Says Donald Maass, another widely respected literary agent and author, “For virtually all novelists, the challenge is to push farther, go deeper, and get mean and nasty.” Plot-driven novelists do it with incident, character-driven ones by ramping up internal conflict. Stephen King doesn’t rely on plot at all. He starts with a situation, a predicament, and then watches his character “try to work themselves free.”
Tellingly, King says, “my job isn’t to try to help them” free themselves, but to observe them and write it down. That’s such an important point. You can’t go easy on your characters, however attached you are to them. Rogan says when authors “smooth the way for their protagonists”—making clues come too easily or difficulties to easily overcome, giving them a midtown Manhattan parking place just when they need it (!), authors are behaving like “benevolent gods”—a trap my own writing sometimes falls into. I like my characters, even some of the baddies; but I cannot be their mum. What characters learn, they must learn at a cost in physical or emotional pain—preferably both. That makes readers care about them.
In Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close the protagonist, precocious nine-year-old Oskar Schell, has a mysterious key belonging to his dead father, and he want to find the lock it will open. He believes someone named Black knows what lock that is. Lots of people in the New York City phone book are named Black, and Oskar visits them all. If the key had belonged to Aaron Black, this would have been a short story.
As in real life, Oskar and other successful fictional characters have to work hard to find their answers. As do the writers who create them.