Struggle is your password when crafting fiction, and I believe it. Struggle and adversity is what takes any character and makes them round, or triumphant, or even tragic. It is the stuff that challenges your characters, and poses for them the simplest of questions, are your motivations strong enough, do you have the resolve, is it still worth it? Without struggle we’d have no idea how far a character might have been willing to go to achieve their goals.
So how do we set up struggle? Well there are goals and obstacles. I think that’s a basic enough understanding. But what it comes down to, when you’re trying to make the achievement of one overarching goal feel like it fucking meant something, is avoiding instant or premature self gratification.
As writers, we have an end in mind. Some of us will have a clear picture in our heads of how things ought to shape up and where the pieces will fall at the final stroke of our pens, others of us might have a direction but prefer to wait and see what possibilities might be. Either way is fine, so long as your characters have had to struggle to get there.
In my early days with NCN I had some trouble with struggle. I had one ultimate goal for my cyborg to aim for, but as stated above I only had the most basic understanding of how story telling worked. Here I was trying to construct and sculpt a novel, and at the heart of my theory was the design, there are goals and there are obstacles preventing said goals from being achieved. That being the case I’d treat every chapter as if it were a mini story.
My characters would take the stage, a problem would arise, in the course of five to six pages they’d identify a solution, attempt said solution, run into a hitch, then pull through by the skin of their teeth. At the conclusion of every chapter my characters might make camp, roast some meat, tell stories, and call it a night… As you can see I had the basic idea, but I wasn’t giving myself or my theoretical readers any reason to continue on with the story.
It’s taken me a long time to understand this, but if you’re writing a novel or a longer story, it should take chapters worth of time for issues to come to a head and resolve. In the course of my own novel Thompson, the cyborg who is forced to flee his home with his family, ends up killing a female assassin who looks exactly like his eldest daughter and hunting partner… this puts a strain on their relationship, and these issues come to the surface quite a bit. Where they use to be close, there is now a wedge in-between them and this had been a conflict that has driven my novel writing group crazy. The issue will be resolved by the end of the novel, but for now it is a point of tension that will persist and intensify, because it dances on the knife-edge of one of my themes, united we stand.
This is something my characters have to grapple with for a long while, and it isn’t going away any time soon. How often in life do you run into an obstacle that is brushed aside and resolved in a week’s time? The answer is very little, and when they are they’re easily forgotten… where you remember the things that burdened you and stuck around to keep you company until you understood the meaning of the word loathing. And when those burdenful obstacles are finally gone, you celebrate, because goddamn it’s finally over! That’s what we’re trying to do in writing. It’s called catharsis, when your reader can take a deep breath and feel with every inch of their fibre and being, goddamn they finally did it, and in the end we (the readers) are moved.
Thank you for reading,
PS- I’d like to hear your thoughts on struggle and conflict. In your own writing what obstacles have you built that have been particularly effective, what could use some work? What authors IYO are exceptionally good at setting up prolonged conflict and struggle? Feel free to talk to me! 🙂