Comfortable characters are boring characters. Or rather, comfortable characters make for boring story.
One of the best ways to power up any work of fiction is to make your characters really, really uncomfortable.
And one of the best ways to make them uncomfortable is to take away something that matters.
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’ in the end delivers what they really love: inspiration.
Readers want to be inspired. Bless their our hearts.
To be sure, they’re still full-on sadists. They want all the stuff above: the pain and suffering and stubbed toes and broken hearts. They want tension. They want to hold their breath and squint their eyes so they don’t have to fully see what’s about to happen.
But in the end, they want to cheer.
They want to cheer for your character.
And if the path to The End was easy, there’s nothing 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.
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.
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.
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 order, have that be the fastest path to failure.
Ramp up the obstacles to deploying that 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 thing that’s now needed.
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:
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) By exposing 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) By forcing 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 to succeed.
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.
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.
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 of tension.
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.
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, 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 theyhave to figure it out all by themselves (or with the other romantic lead!)
Another thing you can do, without removing allies entirely, is simply to put them at a further distance, practically or metaphorically.
Having their mentor fly away on a month-long speaking tour is a very practical distance. But so, too, is 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 allied force relationships to mess with, you may need to circle back and create such relationships, so you can rip them away later. Mwahahaha…
Bonus Romance Special
For my romance peeps, this “island” will always involve the other romantic lead(s).
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.
I hope so!
Romance Writing Lab offers 1:1 story coaching and is powering up courses & summits & nonfiction craft books, all in pursuit of our ultimate goal: helping romance writers conquer the world. I mean, write fantastic, powerful, must-read fiction.