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Discomfort Zones: Character Development In Action

Comfortable characters are boring characters. Or rather, comfortable characters make for boring story.

You want to be testing your character in every single scene. This is one of the keys to strong character development.

And one of the best ways to do that is to make your characters really, really uncomfortable.

Like, really uncomfortable.

So, how do you do it? How do you make a character uncomfortable? How do you test them?

One of the most powerful ways to add conflict to any story–and one of the best ways to hook your reader–is to take away something that matters.

If you’ve ever struggled to understand how to plot a romance novel, this writing technique is going to help. You’ll see how your character’s discomfort–their character arc–is tied to plotting a great story.

Readers Are Sadists

Readers are sadists, bless their our hearts.

Readers love a good struggle. They love impassible boulders and insurmountable walls. They love your character’s pain and they love losers…because the effort required to overcome all this & score a ‘win’ delivers what readers really love: inspiration.

Readers want to be inspired. Bless their our hearts.

To be sure, we’re still full-on sadists.

Readers want conflict in fiction. They want All The Feels: pain and suffering, stubbed toes and broken hearts. They want tension. They want to feel fear and doubt. They want to hold their breath and squint their eyes when the scary/sad/heartbreaking parts happen, so they don’t have to see what’s about to happen full-on. (But of course they’ll peek.)

But in the end–literally, at The End–they want to cheer.

They want to cheer for your character.

And if the path to The End was easy, there’s not much to cheer for.

Stop Grading Your Characters On A Curve

Your story is a test for your character.  Every scene is–or should be–a test.

This is why readers are reading. There’s no reason to read about a character who heads out to work…arrives at work (on time!)…goes into a meeting…leaves the meeting…goes to lunch…

I’m falling asleep just typing the words.

That’s real life. Readers aren’t reading for real life. We’ve got enough of that already.

Story is hyper-life.

Story is change & struggle & transformation, and it doesn’t come easy. It shouldn’t come easy. Between Page One and The End, you’ve got to force these things on your characters.

That’s why your sadistic readers are reading.

We don’t want to see characters stay in their comfort zone.

We don’t want things to go easy for them.

And we definitely don’t want them to succeed….not without a fight.

You’re the storyteller. That means you’re the Deliverer of Suffering.

Don’t be timid. Wield your power.

Make their life hell. Make the tests hard. However hard it is now, make it harder.

This how your character–and your story–are going to be graded by readers.

Easy Tests = No Reason To Cheer

If you make the tests your characters has to face too easy, we, the sadistic reader, are distinctly unimpressed.

Imagine you’re pretty good at math. Nothing great, but you’ve got the multiplication tables down.

Someone hands you a paper with addition and subtraction problems on it. You set to work. You add and subtract with the best of them…you finish…turn it in…and get a–gasp!–an A.

I am not cheering for you.

Now…what if you were medium-good at doing maths, and you got handed a test for Non-Euclidean Geometry or Set Theory?  Now, I’m sitting forward in my seat, wondering how you’re going to handle this. I mean, you’re clearly out of your league. out of your comfort zone. I’m interested.

Now, what if you got an A on that test by sheer dumb luck? Well, sure, I guess I’m clapping?

But, what if you failed the test…3 times? I mean of course you did?

What if you then started studying super hard…what if you sacrificed time spent on twitter & insta…what if you wept bitter Euclidian tears but persevered? What if all your friends told you to just give up, it’s not worth it? What if your family told you you couldn‘t pass it? They don’t think you have what it takes. What if you need to pass the test to get into your dream school?

What if you get one final shot to take the test?

And what if, the night before the final test, you finally had to reckon with the fact that no one has believed in you your whole life. No one thinks you’re smart enough… no one has ever thought you were good enough and you’d believed them.

But this time, oh this time, you’re going to stop believing the disbelievers.

And you walk into the test, put your head down, and take it again, for the forth time, only this time you believe in yourself.

I am there with pom-poms.

Pom-poms!

And along the way, I’d have been watching, urging you on, hoping and fearing and silently cheering for you.

That’s what your stories need to do too.

In short, your characters cannot easily achieve things or we’ll stop reading.

This happens on a story-wide level, but it gets acted out at a scene-level. Things happen in each scene. Each ‘thing’ is–or should be–a test for your character.

Make those tests hard.

There are a thousand ways to make your character tests harder, but one of the best ways?

Take away something that matters.

Take Away Something That Matters

One of the best ways to ramp up conflict & trouble for your romantic leads (or any protagonist!) is to take away something they (think they) need.

This is a powerful strategy to intensify the trouble your protagonist is in. It will increase conflict, tension, pain…

It will force them to a reckoning.

Remove/Disable...Skills

Storytellers can get into trouble when our protgonist is good at something and we just…let them keep being good?

Specifically, we let that skill/ability keep scoring them wins.

He’s an analytical thinker, and that analysis keeps pointing to the right clues. She’s a commanding leader, and people keep getting in line to follow.

i.e. The scene-level situations they’re involved in in require that ability. Success depends on the very thing they have in spades.

Stop that.

Remove that skill or render it ineffective.

If they’re an analytical thinker, put them in situations where the opposite of analytical thinking is required.

If they’re used to issuing orders, have that be the fastest path to failure.

Ramp up the obstacles to deploying their talent/skill/ability, or have it fail to deliver what it always has in the past.

This will knock your protagonist back on their heels & force them to come up with another plan, find another way, rethink their usual approach, develop a new skill, or turn to someone who is good at the skill that’s now needed. :cue romance relationship:

Furthermore, this discomfort–and the resulting problem-solving they’re forced to do–can be used to force them to face certain facts they may have been avoiding.

Use it to make them experience new emotions, ones that are essential to transformation. :cue character development:

Romance Special

In a romance, the ‘discomfort’ afforded by disabiling their super-skill is often, at least partly, delivered via the other romantic lead(s).

i.e. The other lead isn’t very impressed by their super-skill. So, the commanding leader can’t just ‘command’ the other lead, because the other lead simply won’t be commanded (or be impressed by the attempt).

Additionally, this disabling of super-skills is a great way to build the romance in two primary ways:

1) It exposes their vulnerabilties.

Once the analytical thinker realizes analysis is failing them, they’re going to have to face emotions that will make them vulnerable, which can lead to greater intimacy.

2) It forces them to rely on/work closely with the other romantic lead.

The failure of their super-skill will (should?) require them to rely on the other romantic lead(s) to succeed. This will build their connection and force them to reckon with beliefs & emotions they’ve been avoiding.

In short, stop letting your characters be good at things. I mean, they can be good at some things…but those things shouldn’t always score them a win or help them achieve a goal.

The opposite in fact.

Pro Tip

You can use the obverse of this to craft hidden skills & talents.

The character who’s always stayed in the shadows is forced to step out of them and take strong, decisive action…and in the process, they discover they’re actually really really good at something…say, non-Euclidian geometry.

And then you can dig into why they never realized they were good at this. Why they never gave it a shot before. It can be a path to transformation, as they start to recognize & understand old beliefs & emotions that have been driving them…and holding them back.

Remove/Disable...Recharge Stations

When you have a tough day, what do you do?

Lots of people go home and recharge. Some go out with a partner, call up a friend, binge watch a program, play a game, read (!!), unwind with a shower/a stamp collection/a favorite hobby.

We find a way to regroup. Recharge.

Your job is to remove the recharge station for your character.

Keep your romantic leads in a state of heightened tension, confusion, uncertainty, anger, fear, etc.

You can let them recharge a little, sure. But not much.

I’m not saying you need to lead them into dark alleys at 3 a.m. in every scene. And the removal of these recharge stations don’t need to be tragic, fraught, tense things. It works in a comedy or a lighter small town romance as much as a thriller.

If you love playing with make-up at the mall, and the mall is closed…

If you need to hang with a friend, and that friend is out of town…

If you want to watch Game of Thrones (seasons 1-5) and your cable is out… (or for some reason it’s only loading seasons 6 & 7)…

What are you gonna do??

Or better, what’s your character going to do?

Time still exists. They have to do something.

Disable The Recharge Station

An off-shoot strategy is to let them access the recharge station, but it’s out of juice. It doesn’t provide what it usually does.

If your character usually dives into Excel files as a way to cope, but even the Excel files can’t sooth their inner turmoil, it’s a great way to show (vs. tell) the reader something unusual is going on. It sharpens the sense that Something Is Going On. Something the reader should pay attention to.

The other way to work with this is to have the recharge station deliver an entirely unexpected volt of energy, paradoxically driving them even deeper into discomfort.

Your character likes to go out for long drives at night… but this time, about 50 miles out, they get a flat.

Or maybe they usually visit with their bff, who’s always so supportive…but not this time. This time bff is calling them on their stuff, and It. Is. Not. Pleasant.

In short, do not let them recharge. Don’t take their tea-kettle self off the burner. No, no, storyteller. That is not your job.

Your job is to push them closer to the edge. Your job is to turn up the heat.

Romance Special

A great way to work with disabled recharge stations for a romance is to have the other romantic lead(s) provide the recharge.

Now, at first, the other lead is generally, constantly, infuriatingly a disturbance in their world. But as the story progresses, the romance should be the place–often the only place–they get recharged.

The recharge doesn’t have to come through physical proximity either. Simply recalling words or experiences with the other person can & should provide solace/hope/excitement/etc.

This not only builds the romance relationship, but it also shows the reader that character is changing. :cue character development:

Pro Tip

This builds on the Romance Special tip.

Reversing or changing what recharges the character over the course of the story is one of the best ways to push a character arc.

Give your character 1-2 recharge stations (activities, relationships, actions) at the start of the story. Find the heart of why those things give your character energy or assuage emotional stress. Tie those reasons to the ‘issue’ your character has to work on.

Now, as the story progresses, show the character changing their experience & opinion of those recharge stations.

i.e. They don’t have the same power they used to. The character doesn’t feel better afterwards, at least not the way they used to. The stations are losing their charge because the character is changing.

Remove/Disable...Allies

This can be seen as removing a recharge station, but I want to draw it out individually, because it’s very powerful.

For most of our characters, there are some  kind of ‘allied forces’ in their life. Partners, friends, mentors, coaches, colleagues, sounding boards, etc.

Go ahead and mess with these.

Turn an ally into an adversary or a less certain ally. Reveal that a once-supportive secondary character has ulterior motives.

Have their bestie buddy, who’s always been a supportive sounding board, suddenly starts to question what they’re doing.

You can also simply remove a secondary character. Make them unavailable, for angsty or non-angsty reasons. Maybe their advisor simply doesn’t answer the phone. Now they’re alone with their problem…and their emotions. Now they have to figure it out all by themselves (or with the other romantic lead!)

Altered Allies

Another thing you can do, without removing allies entirely, is simply to put them at a further distance, practically or metaphorically.

Having your mentor fly away on a month-long speaking tour puts distance–quite literally–between you. But so, too, can the news your best friend just got pregnant.

The key with all this is to put your character on an island and force them to build their own boat.

If you like this strategy but realize you don’t have any alliance relationships to mess with, you may need to circle back and create such relationships, so you can rip them away later. Mwahahaha…

Or, you might simply start building the alliances over the course of the story, and that’s the important change.

Romance Special

For my romance peeps, this “island” will always involve the other romantic lead(s).

Everyone else goes away–literally or figuratively–and it’s just them, alone on their metaphorical (or real!) island.

This strategy, of removing or powering-down other important relationships, can be especially powerful if you’re struggling to find ways to force your characters together.

The Cliff Is Your Goal

In summary…the more you make your characters suffer, the more your readers will love you.

Do this in a way that fits with your voice & genre, but you can and should do this whether you’re writing a rom-com or a dystopian thriller.  The way to calibrate voice & tone is by how the character reacts, how much time you spend with that reaction, etc. But you still need to test them.

And, of course, have them fail.

The strategies we covered here will help you do that.

The more you isolate your character from recharge stations & supportive people, the more you remove their special skills and habits and abilities and make them fail…

…the more you force them to rely on themselves, to look inward, to look deeper…

…and then to try new actions….

…the more your readers will love them.

We none of us change unless we have to, amirite?

Build The Cliff & Push Them Over

In your larger story, you’ve set up stakes, motivations, and story goals. These carve out a huge cliff in the character’s life, one that’s coming ever closer.

Make it a big cliff, and don’t let them mill about near the edge.

Push them straight over the edge and force them to learn how to fly.

Want More??

I hope so!

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