Making Trouble (For Your Characters)

This writing craft tip might feel a little too uncomfortably familiar at the moment. I know a lot of writers right now can’t find focus, and I hear you. Some days it’s like walking through wet cement. Navigating a terrible situation requires processing.

I hope this post helps you when you’re ready.

Our Stories, Ourselves

As I’ve said repeatedly in my craft discussions, the best stories are those that come from deep emotions, and the deepest emotional well is the one we tap from inside ourselves. But that task carries a conundrum.

As we connect with our characters in order to tap our own emotional resource, we tend to feel tied to those characters, and we can become protective. We don’t want Belle to suffer, so we build a wall around her. We keep her from getting hurt. We don’t let her do anything dangerous – she marches through the things that happen on the page and comes away unscathed and not responsible. We won’t let her heart be broken by that cute guy. We won’t let her be the murder suspect. We won’t take away her family, or drop her unarmed on that alien planet, or push her headlong into the dragon’s lair.

We sure won’t let her feel the effects of a pandemic.

And while that makes for the life we all want (especially right now), it makes for very poor fiction.

What Readers Need from Fiction

Readers search for a number of things when reading fiction. Escape, certainly. We want to leave the world behind for a few hours, get lost inside a world that is not our own. Language, often, as we enjoy the beauty of articulate construction.

But we also search, albeit mostly without realizing it, for lessons.

Why do you suppose that a lot of people right now are gravitating toward pandemic fiction? Albert Camus’s classic The Plague has risen from the past, and the more recent Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel recounts a viral epidemic much like our own, though deadlier than our own (we hope). Readers finding these books are looking for answers. They need to know how to behave, what to do, what to expect, and how to feel for those going through these difficulties.

Fiction is fiction, but the best writers who tackle subjects like these do extensive research and think broadly about the “what-ifs” and potential outcomes and emotional impacts. And that’s why their stories are so good.

Writing Tough Topics for Young Readers

Because I write for young readers my approach to writing about a difficult subject is tempered. I don’t want to terrify; but I do want to inform. Informing means making trouble for my protagonist because only by getting her into trouble will readers see how they can get themselves out. And just as importantly, they will feel empathy for a protagonist in a tough situation they have not experienced.

One approach to a tough topic for young readers might be to create a metaphorical story, which is one reason kids like “scary” or “spooky” stories, and mysteries, and fantasies, and science fiction. But we can’t lay off the difficulties our protagonists must face. If we do, we run the risk of not only creating a boring story but more importantly a story that cannot inform.

When you go back to writing, or if you’re fortunate enough to be writing now, do keep making trouble for your protagonists. You will connect with your readers, and they will find what they need from your stories.

How are you doing?? Are you able to write? What do you think will be the right topics for young readers?