Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.
On the past three Fridays we've been talking about creating tension in our novels. If you're just joining us now, you can find those conversations here:
Today, we're talking about our characters. Be excited friends!
The number one way to fill your story with tension is to keep your characters constantly off balance. There should never be a moment when your characters--specifically your main character--isn't wrestling with something. When you think about your favorite stories, you'll realize something:
Most of the tension-filled moments exist because there is conflict between characters.
So! How do we do that? How do we keep our protagonist (main character) out of sync with the other characters in the story? For simplicity's sake, let's split our character relationships into four categories:
This is clearly the easiest place to build tension. Conflict between your protagonist and antagonist (central character opposing the main character) will be at the very heart of your story. It will, by it's very nature, move things forward. Things to consider:
1. Your villain should be a worthy opponent. Creating a character who doesn't have the smarts or the ability or the charisma to ably stand in the way in of your protagonist isn't going to do you any favors in the tension department. There must be something about your bad guy that positions him across from your lead. If not, the conflict between the two will feel flat and not at all risky for your main character. And things must be risky.
2. Your villain's motivation should conflict with the hero's. I'm always amazed when I read a book alongside a friend and they end up rooting for the villain. There could be many reasons for that, but one is very simple: perhaps they identify more with the villain's motivation. If your hero and your villain want the same thing, that's awesome! Stellar. But if they want it for the same reasons, your story can quickly become a snooze-fest.
Let's say your hero and your villain are racing. Your hero wants to cross the finish line first to honor the memory of his father who was a celebrated racing champion. But your villain? He wants to cross the finish line first because he wants the shiny trophy, or because he wants the prize money--OR--maybe your villain's motivation is darker than that. Maybe his primary motivation is to spoil the hero's chances. How contrary can you make your villain? Work at it. Work at the "why" behind his actions and set it squarely at odds with the hero's own motivation.
3. Your hero and villain should spend time in close proximity. I just read a story where the main character and her nemesis were assigned to the same dorm room. This is good. When two opposing forces rub against one another, we get friction. The idea of enemies is not enough. We need to see the tension on the page. Lock your enemies up together. Watch what happens.
Sidekicks are easily some of my favorite characters in literature. Written well, they can provide a beautiful contrast to your protagonist and add color and flavor to a story. But things shouldn't be all roses between your main character and his friends. Consider:
1. Friends don't tell friends everything. Contrary to all the sappy quotes out there, most friends have secrets. Exploit this! How do your characters feel about an unspoken something between them? Tense, yes? At least one of them will feel the discomfort of subterfuge. And what happens when the secret gets out? Tension! Yes!
2. Opposites attract. While most friends have at least one thing they can bond over, your story will lack tension if your main character's BFF is simply a clone of the protagonist. Give your sidekick her own interests and her own motivations. If she's helping the main character as they journey through the story, let her fight the villain in her own way. Maybe she's impetuous where your lead is methodical. Maybe she's a blabbermouth and your lead is reserved. Maybe she never, ever backs down from a fight and your lead does all she can do avoid them. I'm certain you can find ways to turn these opposites into a problem.
3. Disagreements are king. Just because two people care about one another does not mean they agree on everything. In fact, they may not agree on much at all. What if they disagree on important things? Like how to fight the bad guy. Or whether lying is ever okay. Or if they really should steal the treasured jewel. What if your lead unwittingly drags your sidekick into a battle he doesn't agree with? Tension, yes?
Everyone has family. Even your orphan hero originated somewhere and his own history should play mightily into his actions. Whether your lead's family members play an important role in the story or not, you'd be wise to think through their influence on your main character.
1. Abandonment comes in all shapes and sizes. We like reading about heroes who press toward their goal despite the odds stacked against them. Often this starts early in life for a hero--his family has abandoned him and he's struggling through alone. While this path provides a lot of fodder, consider the fact that many of us FEEL abandoned by our family at some stage and--real or not--you can use this truth to add tension. Maybe your hero feels his dreams aren't supported at home. Maybe his ever-present family doesn't do their part around the house leaving weighty responsibilities to him. Maybe he feels the sting of constantly disappointing his parents. Feeling alone is a sentiment we all understand. Building that into your family relationships will create that thick atmosphere that always breeds intensity inside a home.
2. Sibling rivalry. Competition exists in nearly every household. Brothers and sisters, even husbands and wives. None of us are immune to that competitive streak and allowing those things to build between your characters can add a fabulous dose of conflict.
3. Dysfunction works. Not only is the dysfunctional family relate-able, but they present a buzzing hive of tension. I think of Katniss's mom, and Harry's aunt and uncle. I think of Eleanor's family in Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park. The dysfunction in that household is so uncomfortable you can't wait for Eleanor to walk out the front door each day. It's the very definition of tension. A perfect blend of internal and external conflict--something family relationships are excellent at bringing to life.
Romantic relationships are not easy. And the hard truth is that not all of them survive. As a teen, THANK GOD for that. No. Seriously. Thank Him. As a writer, use this fact of life to make your readers ask themselves, "Are these two really going to make it?" The thoughts I gave you up there in the FRIENDS section would also apply here but here are a few additional tid bits:
1. Careful with insta-love. In most cases, there should be some conflict and tension leading up to your main character making that true love connection with THE ONE. Don't make it easy on your love-birds. Throw some road blocks in there. Pre-existing relationships or forbidden interaction. Initial dislike is one of my favorites. Make your hero fight through his first impressions before you let him find happiness. Readers want real. Insta-love is fine now and then, but it rarely feels authentic.
2. Toxic relationships work on the page. Have you ever been around two people who bring out the absolute worst in one another? It's unbearable. On the page though--especially if there's attraction--toxicity works. It invades dialogue and streams of consciousness. It spreads like a poison and keeps emotions high. Terrible in real life. Awesome on the page.
3. Show Off Selfishness. Because we're all sort of longing for the perfect relationship, it can be very tempting to write our characters into one. But without tension, that perfect relationship isn't worth reading. Let your characters make mistakes. Let them be selfish. Show the reader the consequences of selfishness in an intimate relationship. Make Romeo and Juliet fight through their own failures to be together. It makes a happy ending so much more satisfying.
Each relationship your main character has carries with it the potential to add some serious tension to your story. I bet you were thinking about your own cast of characters as you read. I hope you'll examine those relationships and use something here to create tension and stir up conflict.
Tell me, which relationships are hardest for you to write? Easiest? Does writing conflict into a relationship come easily to you or do you have to work at it?