My last post about 5 psychological struggles that can enhance good plot was one of my best received ever; because of that, I wanted to follow up with a reflection on how those useful, real, and powerful personal demons characters face can turn against an author.
EMOTIONAL STRUGGLE AND BALANCE
It’s true that our characters might struggle for redemption, or to forgive someone. We all find it difficult to let go of the past, even when we know that letting go and leaving the past behind will be to our benefit. None of us likes to face our fears, or make a difficult choice between two equally wonderful or terrible options. None of us LIKES to sacrifice.
And yet we do these things, because we know that’s what life is truly about: change, and growth. We sacrifice for those we love because love means putting others first. Our characters will do these things too. And that’s good.
Here’s the thing, though: fiction is always about striking a balance. And when you’re dealing with inner struggles, with emotions, that is no less true than in any other case.
If you pay too little attention to, or focus too little a character’s personal issues, he or she will come across as stale, lifeless, or even robotic. Your readers won’t understand or relate to such “people.”
Yet, it is possible to harp too much on emotional and personal struggles, or to present them in the wrong way.
- Perspective is always key. When characters blow insignificant things out of proportion, they can come across as petty, immature, or self-centered. (Scarlett O’Hara in the first chapters of “Gone with the Wind” is a great example of how an interesting character might be just those things.)
- When you harp on emotional conflict to the detriment of action, your pacing stiffens and you might bore readers.
- When you give the impression that the emotional struggles are more important than everything else, your story comes across as cheap and forced; as a vehicle to manifest the struggles, not as lives real people could be living.
LET THE STRUGGLES YOUR CHARACTERS FACE ARISE NATURALLY FROM WHO THEY ARE AND WHAT THEIR LIFE SITUATION IS.
More than anything else, this post is a reminder to me that most aspects of fiction can, and should, be character-driven. That includes emotional struggles and personal growth.
The way to avoid personal struggle getting out of balance–whatever “balance” means based upon your individual story and your style–is not to force it on your characters. Don’t push it…. Let it develop as a natural result of who they are and what is happening to them.
Can you set yourself up for some specific emotional turmoil, though? Sure. If you know you want a story about redemption, you can give your characters a sordid past. If you know you want to write about recovering from loss, your protagonist can be a widower or a widow. An author can always manipulate, to some extent, circumstances in order to create a specific, natural-feeling result.
There is a difference between crafting a character whose personality lends itself to jealousy, and forcing a character to be jealous of someone else without real cause just because you want that to factor in to your story.
There is a difference between crafting a character whose situation realistically and plausibly could force her to make a difficult choice or sacrifice, and twisting events in a crazy way to put her in that place.
That’s what I mean by balance. It’s not something to fret over…. Generally, if you get out of balance as an author, you’ll feel it. You won’t be happy with what you’re writing, and you’ll give it another shot.
At least, that’s my personal experience. That’s the thing about balance…. when you lose it, you fall flat on your face. And that’s hard to miss. 🙂 Even if you don’t catch it, beta readers and editors are there to get you back on track.
So, how do you balance emotion, and the personal struggles of your characters, with the stories of what they do and achieve? Have you struggled with this?
Feel free to comment on your thoughts… and make sure to come back if the topic interests you, because I feel like I’ve just hit the tip of the iceberg here talking about balance in creative writing. I’ll have two or three more posts on the subject coming.
Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”
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