Adding Conflict and Making Things Worse for Your Characters (Yes, even worse than you first imagined) – By Kelly Charon
Kelly Charron is the author of horror, psychological thrillers and urban fantasy novels. All with gritty, murderous inclinations and some moderate amounts of humor. She spends far too much time consuming true crime television (and chocolate) while trying to decide if yes, it was the husband, with the wrench, in the library.
She has written a YA psychological thriller called PRETTY WICKED about Ryann Wilkanson, a 15-year-old girl living in the small town of Dungrave County, Colorado who dreams of being an infamous and prolific serial killer––all the while keeping her dark deeds secret from her detective father and his shrewd partner. Available on Amazon.
With much more to tell in this story, she has written a sequel to PRETTY WICKED titled WICKED FALLOUT, which takes place 12 years after the slew of murders in the small town of Dungrave. It can be enjoyed as a standalone novel or as part of the Pretty Wicked series.
She lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada with her husband and their fat cat Moo Moo, who insists on sitting on the keyboard and begging for people food.
Adding Conflict and Making Things Worse for Your Characters (Yes, even worse than you first imagined)
By Kelly Charron
As writers, we always want to make our story more compelling. What will make the reader say, “Just one more chapter,” when they should be turning off the bedside light?
I vividly remember watching The Martian. My pulse was racing, I was literally sitting on the edge of the theatre seat, jaw clenched. I leaned over to my husband and whispered, “What else could possibly to happen to him?” But I loved every agonizing second. This was successful because I was deeply connected to the character, emotionally invested in the story, and never allowed to rest for long. There were moments (think Matt Damon driving, recharging the solar panels, sleeping, singing, making videos) where the tension whittled away. The audience is more at ease (though not completely—we never want that). Our guard is down just enough when WHAM! The next horrible thing happens to Matt—I mean Mark Watney—and we’re floored. This sort of ebb and flow is found in great storytelling.
There is forward momentum with action (peak), followed by a slight decline (valley). You should increase this pattern throughout the story except with each action (the peak gets higher) and each decline in action (the catch our breath moment) the valleys get shallower. Introducing new horrible things to your characters is a must. Every time you think you can’t make something worse for your character, find a way to do it.
The worse you can make a situation for your characters, the more difficult it will be for readers to walk away. We want readers to be so engrossed in our words that they lose their connection to reality (temporarily of course) and surrender to the intrigue and chaos you’ve created.
How do you successfully do this?
5 key ways to make things worse for your character
Initial problem: Let’s say we have a character named Joe who has an argument with his boss. Days later, Joe’s boss fires him.
Sure, this is bad for Joe, but your job is to make it much worse.
Make it personal
Joe goes home, tells his wife, and in response she gets upset and reveals she’s pregnant. He has no job, a baby coming that he didn’t anticipate, and they have no savings.
It sucks to lose your job, but losing your job and discovering there’s a baby coming raises the stakes.
Add a Time Crunch
The baby is due in 5 months and Joe needs to find a job asap, but no one is interested in hiring him. He decides he has to beg for his job back from the boss he hates.
Having your character under pressure is a great way to escalate conflict and tension, especially if the reader isn’t sure the character will succeed in time. It puts strict parameters around the character to act and move the story forward.
Change where the conflict happens
Joe goes to his former workplace to talk to his old boss but when he walks in he finds his pregnant wife in his boss’s arms. Joe blows up and within moments all his previous coworkers know what’s going on.
Where the conflict unfolds is crucial to making it worse for your character. Joe finding out publicly creates greater tension (adding heartbreak and humiliation) than if his wife told him in the privacy of their home.
Change who causes the problem
The person causing conflict and grief for your main character is essential. For instance, Joe catching his wife having an affair is bad, but finding out it was with the boss he hates brings the level of conflict up to horrendous.
Increase what is lost:
Not only has Joe lost his career and his wife, but the baby might not be his and he’s become local gossip since the affair came out so publicly.
Having your character lose things that are important to them is a huge part of escalating conflict.
Go through your manuscript and look for places where you can use these tips to increase the tension and conflict. For every situation ask yourself, what would make this worse?
A few other helpful tips:
Empathy for your character is crucial to building anticipation in your reader. If the reader doesn’t care about your character and hasn’t bonded with them, then whatever bad things happen are not going to mean as much when you put them in jeopardy. Don’t simply have a bomb going off at a school—make it the school the main character’s daughter attends.
Build appropriate apprehension and suspense. While I do have a fair amount of violence in my Pretty Wicked series, a good portion of the books is subtle drama that foreshadows (and sometimes outright tells) the upcoming action-filled events. You don’t want to fatigue the reader by going nonstop, which can desensitize them. That’s why the peaks and valleys approach is commonly utilized in storytelling. You want the reader to have moments to catch their breath while continuously bonding with the characters so when the next awful thing happens, it’s all the more tragic.
Don’t get lost in backstory. While your reader will need a certain amount of history laid out on the page, you don’t want to compromise your pace, tension and conflict reveals by keeping the reader out of the present action. Subtly disperse backstory in the present action while creating the conflict for your characters. Backstory details should only be included because they are pertinent to building character, the world, or upping the stakes.
These tips and suggestions should get you started onto making your character’s lives miserable- but your writing great!
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