Should your main characters ever feel comfortable? Should they ever feel like everything is okay and their life is going just fine? Of course, the answer to these questions – especially when dealing with fictional characters – is an emphatic NO. Over the course of the story, it is your job as a writer to keep them as off-balance as possible.
In the real world, we often have a strong desire for balance and calm in our daily lives. Too much stress or anxiety can take its toll on the human mind, body, and spirit, so we often escape to places where we can refresh and recharge. With fictional characters, this sense of calm should be a constant struggle to obtain. It not only can make them more in-depth as characters, it can also make for a better story.
The old adage is that Conflict = Drama. And drama is what drives the story forward. Like most writers, I tend to want to protect my main characters from harm. But in doing so you do a great disservice to your characters and your readers. Putting your characters in harm’s way, giving them impossible situations to get out of, and relentlessly giving them obstacles to overcome makes for a better story and can help strengthen and add dimension to your characters.
This is where the concept of the Character Arc comes into play. Your characters should evolve and change over the course of the story, and keeping them off-balance and having to find ways to try and resolve their problems helps them grow as characters. Don’t forget that your main character should go through some sort of change or metamorphosis over the course of the story.
Granted, you want to give the reader a sense of what is a normal day for your characters before the inciting incident turns their world upside down. That’s fine. It’s what Joseph Campbell refers to as The Ordinary World. But once that Ordinary World is thrown off, it’s time to take your characters on a very bumpy ride.
Your main character’s primary goal – aside from the goals your set forth for them once the story gets underway – is to return to their normal as fast as possible. Don’t let them get there. And even once the goal of the story has been achieved and their world seems to be back to normal, the journey they have taken over the course of the story has forever changed them ion some significant way.
They can never return to the Old Normal they had before the story began. And that’s a good thing. They have grown as a character. They have overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And they have come out the other side a stronger, more realized person because of their journey.
It is often during times of great stress or trauma that real people show their true colors. It is your job as a writer to create these types of situations for your characters to keep them off-balance. It doesn’t have to be a life-threatening event, but it should be something that will forever change them for the better…or worse.
What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.
Also check out my article: “Don’t Be Afraid to Rough-Up Your Protagonist.”