Monday, 7 April 2014

What Struggle Means For Character

As readers we like to see characters struggle. It’s entertaining and thrilling. But that’s what it’s like for the reader. For the character, struggle serves another, less obvious purpose. One that can easily be overlooked.

When a butterfly emerges from its cocoon, it is frail and weak. But it has to use up all the energy it has to break out of the little prison its caterpillar-self made.

However, if you were to lend a helping hand and make an incision in the side of the cocoon, enabling the butterfly to emerge quickly and easily, the butterfly would die.

Because that immense effort isn’t just there to make life hard, it’s there to give the butterfly the strength it needs to be able to fly. By struggling against its surroundings, the new body is able to stretch and flex and gain power.

Struggle provides the conditioning necessary to meet future challenges.

By the way, if you’ve ever wondered why we live in a world full of disasters and tragedy, this is the reason. The tougher the challenge, the more resilient life has to be to survive. Without an opposing force to struggle against life simply wouldn’t exist, we’d all just be dead butterflies.

In fiction, a character will face obstacles and overcome them. On an intellectual level we enjoy seeing this happen, and it can be dressed up in various ways, in different genres and premises. But on a deeper level we know that overcoming the obstacle isn’t just about achieving a goal, it’s about the change that achievement (or failure) has on the character. This change is instrumental in how the character will face their next challenge; or at least it should be.

In effect, the first challenge a character faces will prepare them for the next. Sometimes this can be very direct, other times it can be more subtle.

Let’s say Amy is married to Brad, and they argue about a recent windfall left to them. They have a completely different view of what to do with the money and both feel strongly. Amy wants to splurge on a new car, Brad wants to save it for a rainy day. This story might continue with Brad dying and Amy having to raise their two kids alone on a tight budget. That initial fight would be a straightforward precursor to this later struggle.

It should be noted that for this to be effective, that initial fight about money needs to have some kind of resolution. Having them argue for a bit and then leave it to be decided later achieves nothing. She either wins the argument or doesn’t, and whichever it is there should be some kind of reaction from her.

On the other hand, they have the same fight about the money, but the story goes on to be about Amy meeting another man, a free spirit with no inhibitions and they have an affair. Now that initial fight is more about showing the distance between Amy and Brad’s different views of life and providing the foundation for her later infidelity.

You could also forego that initial moment of struggle altogether, or make it so there is no connection, just separate incidents. Amy and Brad fight the bank trying to foreclose on their house, and then he dies. Or maybe Amy and Brad are very happy and we start the story with them having a wonderful time together; and then she meets this guy and has an affair. Such is life, stuff happens.

Both of these examples are perfectly possible. And they will probably both feel unsatisfactory.

Life and death are not meaningless. What appears random and arbitrary from our perspective is actually a series of dominoes falling. It may not give us the meaning we would like, or give us the safety and comfort we would prefer, but it has its reasons. And we can sense it. Even when on a personal level it is unpleasant or counterproductive, as a species and as a planet, there is a direction to all this madness. It’s just that we don’t know what that direction is.

In fiction we get to decide that purpose. It is one of the most powerful aspects of writing. Ignoring this resource (which is certainly possible) denies the reader a deeper, more emotional experience.

If you start a story with the character’s struggles designed to specifically pump up a particular muscle (metaphorically speaking) and then use that muscle later, it will tie the story together.

Bear in mind that you don’t have to win a fight to learn from it. A loss is often a bigger teacher than success. And what we learn isn’t always good or right. Betrayal might convince someone never to trust, abuse might create an abuser. The change in a character and how that affects their future behaviour is what counts.

The connection between one problem and the next, not in what the problem is but in how the character approaches and deals with the situation, both physically and mentally, will provide an invisible thread through the narrative, even when on the surface the situations seem unrelated.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Just like in real life. Every challenge prepares us for the next one.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I think we expect to see the lessons in fiction. In real life the meaning of loss and tragedy often escape us.

Chemist Ken said...

After I've figured out the struggle which the MC must fight and win by the end of the story, I try to go back and make sure he fights (and loses) a similar battle sometime in the first or second chapter chapters.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I think I heard this same example in one of the episodes of "Lost."

Anonymous said...

No matter how many words we've written, we always need this reminder! Thanks for sharing.

The Armchair Squid said...

The struggle is the story, without a doubt. Going too easy on your characters is to stifle them.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Challenges actually strengthen us, they toughen us up. "Bear in mind that you don’t have to win a fight to learn from it. A loss is often a bigger teacher than success. And what we learn isn’t always good or right." This is so apt, Mooderino, I feel that losses teach us more than victories or success.

Al Diaz said...

There is a saying here that humans learn the best lessons in the hardest ways. I love to give my characters plenty of struggle but I haven't been so keen about domino effects.

Trisha said...

Sometimes I think we writers are pretty mean when we make our characters suffer a whole lot. But who wants to read about a character's perfect life where nothing goes wrong? :P

Sarah Allen said...

Totally agree! That's what makes a story interesting is seeing a character overcome obstacles through struggle. And I love that butterfly picture!

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, With Joy)

mooderino said...

@Alex - life is preparing us even when we aren't aware of it.

@susan - Real life is very unreasonable when it comes to making the point of it all clear.

@Ken - that's a good (and sneaky) way to do it.

@Mike - if ever there was a show where the point wasn't clear...

@Carol - you're very welcome.

@Squid - struggles should be hard but they should also be connected in some way.

@Rachna - True, but still hard to deal with. A pleasant way to learn would be nice.

@Al - showing how the lesson continues into the next struggle or problem adds a lot to the story.

@Trisha - Cruelty never felt so good...

mooderino said...

@Jerry - surely you are right.

Margo Kelly said...

GREAT post! thanks! :)

Misha Gerrick said...

I'm with you. Struggle is required for character growth, and that's in fact what makes a story worthwhile. (To me, in any case.)

Shah Wharton said...

Another insightful post Real life tells us everything happens for a reason, and all things link up, like a plot, when we look back on our lives. :)

nutschell said...

As they say, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger! I do love reading about characters whose hardships only change them for the better. :)


LD Masterson said...

There is nothing less engaging than a character with no difficulties to overcome.

mooderino said...

@Margo - you're very welcome.

@Misha - that's very true. but the type of struggle and how it connects to later events is also key.

@Shah - the advantage of being a writer is we get to control those reasons. If only real life were the same...

@nutschell - gives us all hope that our lives may get better even if it's not so great right now.

@LD - although personally give me a quiet life every time.

Hiten Vyas said...

Hi Mooderino,

This is a wonderful post. The advice you've shared about how the key factor being is how characters deal with problems and situations can help us to mould their personalities for the benefit of of our readers.

Thank you.

mooderino said...

@Hiten -you're very welcome.

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