January 18th, 2013 | by Beth Barany
When authors work with me, some of their challenges surround how to help the sagging middle of their novel. That sagging middle is often due to not knowing their characters well enough. All good conflict, in my opinion comes out of your character’s worst fears.
You may have heard the saying, “Put your character into a tree and through stones at them.”
When I first heard that, I was terrified. What? I had to do bad things to my lovely precious characters?
Yes! My critique group shouted at me, politely.
Okay so I went about the hard work of figuring out how to create realistic and ever-escalating conflict for my dear characters.
Now I want to back up a step. You still need to understand all the other aspects of your character:
- What they want (Goal)
- Why they want it (Motivation) (See Deb Dixon’s book, Goal, Motivation, Conflict, for more on his topic.)
- Strengths (Deb’s book doesn’t cover this; it’s my innovation to her robust and useful book.)
- Hobbies (My husband always asks people this; it’s such a great opener.)
- Lifestyle (Social drinkers? Salsa dancers by day; Porche drivers by night? Could be!)
- The way they dress and why (Are they preppy, wearing custom corporate apparel (like company shirts or polos), because they want to get into the country club; or do they wear the latest grunge apparel because they’re part of the underground resistance and their clothes are all hand-me-downs?)
- What they carry in their pockets (See Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried, for inspiration on this.)
Okay. That’s a start.
Let’s get to the heart of conflict for the character.
To know what kind of stones I should throw at my characters, specifically my main characters, I like to brainstorm all these points, then my goal is to prioritize them. I’ll get to the prioritization in a moment.
- Childhood scarring trauma (This event defines the character’s limited sense of self that needs to get healed in some way so that the character can succeed by the end of the story.
- Phobias (This could or not come from the childhood scarring trauma.)
- Irrational fears (Same as phobias. (This could or not come from the childhood scarring trauma.)
- A list of the worst things that could happen to my character, at least 10 things with ever-escalating real or imagined danger. Push the envelope of your tolerance here. End with the real or feels-real death for your character, whichever is appropriate for your genre.
- Secrets from herself. What she can’t even admit to herself but maybe others know.
- A secret from herself and one that others don’t know.
- Secrets she must keep from others or else? (What is the “or else”?)
Once you’ve brainstormed this list, then prioritize the bad stuff from the least impact to your character to the biggest impact. As I was reminded from a Steven Pressfield post this week, make sure that your character faces a real or imagined death. That is really what we’re heading towards.
Once you’ve got your stones lined up, start lobbing at your character. Then voila, your sagging middle will disappear, and you’ll have a lean, robust middle of your novel that will keep your readers at the edge of their seats, turning those pages.
And that, after all, is our goal.