AUTHORS: on balancing personal struggles with action in creative writing

girl-in-black-clothes---balancing-1189552-mMy 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.


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.


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.


The “Come, Cliche, Crackdown approach to character development

“I almost let him die,” or a reflection on why our characters whisper to us

On character traits, part I: self-pity

On character traits, part II: fear

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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16 responses to “AUTHORS: on balancing personal struggles with action in creative writing

  1. Another lesson about characters I am learning is that it is not interesting what a character flees from; fascination lies in what a character travels to.

  2. I find a lot of the personal struggles act as subplots and take up chapter sections as action breaks. It comes across (at least to me) that the characters still have a life outside of the main plot. For example, my heroes are trying to prevent the return of an ancient evil. Yet they each have subplots that are not directly connected to that. A few romances, an identity crisis or two, and each one is left wondering what happens after the big battle. These help create scenes where the characters reveal their inner thoughts, which makes them human and more than ‘hero on a quest’.

    • It is SO TRUE that characters have lives outside the main plot. That’s especially true of supporting characters. And it can be easy to forget….

      • Funny that you mention supporting characters. The ones that aren’t in every book of a series get either overlooked or their activities are questioned. I find in a long series that involves traveling, you can’t have every supporting character show up in every book. Some are location specific and others have lives that merely intersect the main events. This means a supporting character who is important, but not always present needs to make a big impact with every appearance. I think this throws off the balance a bit, but in a beneficial way. At least long term.

  3. J. L. Lincicome

    Great post. In the YA novel I’m currently working on, I can feel that balance start to waiver, because I’m trying to force the story. I catch myself doing this too often, and I have to pull myself back, letting the characters do what they want to do. For me, it’s a matter of having too much control. I like to know what is going to happen, but as a writer, I don’t have that luxury. Thanks!

    • It is tough to let go of the control!!! So tough! But you know, I think that’s one of the big life lessons writing teaches us. There is SO MUCH in life we can’t control, no matter how much we try…

      Thanks for this, J.L. I think you’ve sparked an idea for a post for me!!!

  4. A great post, and really something to think of. I try to just write sometimes, if I think too much about characters and things like this I find I lose focus on getting the story flowing.

    I tend to think about balance in the edits, and making sure everything feels and fits right. It’s a tough job trying to get it all to flow well, and balance just right! 😀

    • There is DEFINITELY something to be said for not overthinking a first draft and overthinking the characters. Inspiration can be our friend 🙂 You’re very right: that’s what editing is for: balance.

  5. Pingback: Creative Writing: The great balancing act of crafting fiction | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  6. Pingback: Why “Balance” in Fiction Rarely Means a 50/50 Split | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  7. I do feel how emotional struggles sometimes dominate whole novels. In my WIP, the main theme is, in your example, redemption, but the main conflict is the emotional struggle, or more specifically, the guilt. How would you suggest I balance action and emotion? I am a bit confused. Thanks.

    Thanks for sharing this post. Really thought-provoking. 🙂

    • It’s hard to give specific advice without knowing your story…. Just remember that different genres define action differently. Internal conflict IS still conflict and can be enough action to carry a tale as the central struggle, depending on your story and its audience 🙂 Les Miserables could give you some great, great examples of guilt/redemption balanced with action when a redeemed thief’s past comes up to catch up with him.

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