Home » Quotes » Make trouble for your character

Make trouble for your character

12 February 2014

When in doubt, make trouble for your character. Don’t let her stand on the edge of the pool, dipping her toe. Come up behind her and give her a good hard shove. That’s my advice to you now. Make trouble for your character. In life we try to avoid trouble. We chew on our choices endlessly. We go to shrinks, we talk to our friends. In fiction, this is deadly. Protagonists need to screw up, act impulsively, have enemies, get into TROUBLE.

Janet Fitch


8 Comments to “Make trouble for your character”

  1. Janet’s was the class that most demonstrated my improvement as a writer. For a long while, you could read the manuscript for The Prodigal Hour and see exactly where I started taking her course. Genre was a bit out of her comfort zone–she focused a lot on language and sentence-level structure–but she could, ultimately, accommodate.

  2. Great advice! Thanks! 🙂


  3. To riff off this and Kurt Vonnegut: “Make your character want something. Then see how hard you can make it for them to get it.”

  4. That’s the thing, though. Sometimes you want to read about a protagonist going through heck, and sometimes you really really don’t. There are tons of books (and even more movies and TV shows) that I’ve dropped because it’s just too hard to watch, too emotionally exhausting, or there are too many stupid predicaments. Sometimes you want to read about the character being endlessly tortured and strained, and then other times, Wodehouse strikes you as depressingly difficult and complicated. There is a place for the character doing things or going places, and not having trouble per se, just as there was a place for Tolkien giving his characters a freaking break every few hundred pages.

    (Although that actually got leveraged better by Tolkien than most of his Seventies imitators, as Diana Wynne Jones talks about in her essay on Tolkien’s narrative style. Tolkien’s breaks vary a lot in their tone, and by the time Frodo and Sam get to Mordor, it’s not much of a breaktime or a feast. Creating a pattern and then messing with it messes with the reader’s head.)

    So the essence of this exercise is solving a writer problem. It’s not a solution for everything.

    Of course, the other side of this advice is that “trouble” can be anything. You don’t have to kill people to provide trouble; you just have to create a reason why the character is having trouble with a particular situation, and make the trouble convincing enough _for that character_ that they can’t just stomp out of it easily.

    • Ohmigod, yes. The Thomas Covenant series comes immediately to mind.

    • Excellent point. Sometimes the trouble will be mortal peril. Other times it’s moral peril; I love how Bujold does this with Miles Vorkosigan. Unrelenting slogs just bring out my inner misanthrope.

    • I had to give up reading the Dresden Files because it was so exhausting for me. I’d go through a few chapters of Harry getting beaten to hell by various forces and emerge from my reading time feeling as if I had been beaten, body and soul. I loved Harry. I loved the stories. But I couldn’t handle constantly feeling like I’d just gone through what he did. Maybe I get too into my books.

  5. “Trouble” need not equal torture. It can also be an opportunity to reveal the character’s nature and/or capabilities. Heinlein used that approach often, most notably in METHUSELAH’S CHILDREN.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.