Monday, August 8, 2011

Writing Lesson of the Day: Stressed Out Character

Now for Lesson Number 3:

Stress out your characters.


Your main character should be yelling, "I need a vacation!"

Think of Harry Potter (because it's just a freaking awesome example of everything). He felt some stress from homework and exams and starting at a new (magic!) school. Add in Quidditch, which his dad was apparently amazing at, and everyone expected him to be amazing, too. There were budding friendships conflicted by Ron and Hermione's love/hate vibe. And meanwhile, everybody knew who he was and either idolized him from babyhood or hated his guts before he even said hello.

Worst of all, nobody knew if the murderer who killed his parents and a bunch of other people was really dead. Most people seemed to think he wasn't. Then partway through the book, he gets the news that Voldemort is coming after him, the 11-year-old who somehow made him disappear.

Yeah, that eleven-year-old knew stress. Over seven books, it just gets worse until in the fifth book readers started to complain that Harry was impossible to live with. Well yeah! Dude was 15 and going through hell!

But even though it would have made a delightful, fun book if Harry's only stresses were new magic school, new magic sports team, new magic friends, it wouldn't be the epic story we're all familiar with.

So when you're writing, don't shy away from the stresses you usually shy away from in your personal life. Nobody wants to have the level of stress Harry Potter had at age 11. But we all want to read about him overcoming those stresses. That's what fiction is all about.

Is your main character past due on his mortgage and stuck in a salary freeze with hospital bills rolling in? That's great, but now you need to set some loan sharks after him and his wife.

Ramp up the stakes. Just when they think they've got it figured out, change the rules.

...Until your character really does need a vacation. And then, when they've survived the worst you can throw at them, for pete's sake, give them that vacation! :)

This Writing Lesson brought to you by Sprouts apple cinnamon granola and six hours of sleep.

See Lesson Number 1


Lesson Number 2


  1. Great post! And I totally agree---Harry Potter is a fantastic example for everything, especially when you're writing a series (like me). I go back to my collection a LOT for pointers on how to keep readers interested.

  2. That explains why Open Eyes is so good!

  3. LOL! This is FABULOUS! ... and oh, so true! Love it, and you write it so well. Really and truly we need to up the stakes and watch these awesome characters overcome them against all odds! I love it!

  4. Ah, yes. Raise those stakes. As James Dashner said in conference address, hurt your characters ... and then hurt them even more.

  5. Perfect advice. However, if you've seen Transformers: Dark of the Moon, you can see that some people throw everything but the kitchen sink at the audience. I think there is a limit to what and how many times you can stress your character out. This is an awesome post.

  6. Abby, Thanks so much for your sweet comment!

    Donna, I love James Dashner! I think I am his newest fan, having just read The Maze Runner. I can't wait to read the rest of his work.

    TLVW, I totally agree on that point! I think the problem with action and horror films is that they sometimes forget to give us a chance to breathe in between blood-pumping episodes. Breaks, where the MCs are figuring things out or enjoying human relationship, are mandatory. That's another thing JK Rowling did perfectly: comic relief and subplots.


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