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We authors are really pretty mean folk. Here we


are, creating characters who we love almost as
much as our family and friends, and yet every
day, on every page, we make these characters
suffer, we refuse to give them what they want,
what they need. Actually, truth be known, we
kind of enjoy making them suffer. How is it that
we can grin at ourselves around our tooth-
brushes every morning and feel no shame for
this blatant sadism?

Very simply, because if we did, we’d be out of a


job. And our characters would have no reason to
exist. Conflict fuels fiction, and frustration fuels
conflict. Think about a few of your favorite sto-
ries. How often, in the course of those stories,
are the characters ever rewarded with some-
thing they want or need? Occasionally, they
probably receive a token reward, a little encour-
agement to keep them from passing out with
the hopelessness of it all. But, more than likely, that token is snatched right
back, leaving he character either deeper in the depths of despair or fighting
mad enough to do something about it. That fighting-mad attitude is what
makes characters tick, makes them come storming off the page. It’s also what
keeps the reader racking up chapters.

Fiction is a journey of many words, with the inevitable destination being some
faraway, seemingly out of reach desire of one or more of the characters. Some-
times that desire is a thing (the Maltese Falcon in Dashiell Hammett’s The Malt-
ese Falcon), a person (Ashley Wilkes in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the
Wind), a state of mind (peace in Milena McGraw’s After Dunkirk), a victory (the
defeat of the Shuhr in Kathy Tyers’s Crown of Fire), an escape (from the op-
pression of the Japanese in Pearl S. Buck’s Dragon Seed), or a place (the
Inkworld in Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart). Ultimately the goal matters little and will
necessarily be unique to each premise. What does matter and what isn’t unique
is the necessity of the character’s burning, undeniable urge to reach that goal.

It’s the author’s enviable job to throw obstacles in the character’s path at every
turn. Every time the character (and the reader) begins to think victory and
happiness are around the bend, the author has to find some way to circumvent
them. (Often, authors identify with their main characters, when really, we are
always acting the part of the antagonist: helping him in his battle to defeat the
hero.) This sort of frustration is obviously necessary is thrillers and action sto-
ries, where the characters’ lives must be under continual threat in order to
maintain suspense. But even cozy romances and leisurely literary novels de-
mand frustrated characters.

So how do you go about keeping the stakes as high as possible for your read-
ers?

* Keep your eyes open for lags. If you find your character happy or at
peace, chances are he’s not too frustrated. Unless you’re using a temporary lull
in the storm to emphasize the disasters to come, avoid these quiet, happy
scenes. Not only do they interrupt the dramatic flow, but they also tend to be
boring.

* Write a list of the ten worst things that could happen to your char-
acter. Jot down all your ideas, no matter how far out. If you haven’t come up
with anything feasible by the end of the list, write ten more. So long as you can
keep the characters guessing, hopefully you can also keep the readers in the
same state of suspense.

* Vary the intensity. Don’t get so caught up in the need for frustration that
you lose the necessity of variety. Even the most thrilling race ‘em, chase ‘em,
shoot-‘em-up scenes will get boring and lose focus if they aren’t interspersed
with more low-key scenes. Frustration doesn’t always have to be a code-red
alert; sometimes it can be only a niggling murmur.

* Evaluate your scenes for frustration. Take a glance at the scenes in


your work-in-progress and make note of what is frustrating the character in
each one. If you can’t find a frustration—or if the source of the frustration
seems weak—grab your list of the ten worst things that could happen and start
bolstering.

Whatever your chosen genre, frustration is the key to keeping characters and
readers—and yourself—on your toes. To give readers what they want, we have
to deny characters what they want. Make ‘em suffer. And have fun!
About the Author: K.M. Weiland grew up
chasing Billy the Kid and Jesse James on
horseback through the sand hills of western
Nebraska, where she still lives. A lifelong
fan of history and the power of the written
word, she enjoys sharing both through her
many fictional stories and her novel, A Man
Called Outlaw. Visit her blog "Wordplay" to
read her take on the writing life.

www.wordplay-kmweiland.blogspot.com
www.kmweiland.com

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