We take it easy on our characters.
We don’t mean to. We fully intend to make them suffer, to make things tough, but in the end, face it—we often don’t really push it. Push them.
The more you set your characters in uncomfortable situations, the more compelling they are. Readers want to watch (fictional) people struggle and strive and succeed, but only after trials and tribulations. It’s the whole reason we tuned in.
The type of tribulation depends on genre and voice, but in every case, tribulation is what your readers want.
Story is conflict. Put your character in uncomfortable situations, make things turn out in unexpected ways, and let’s see who they really are.
DISCOMFORT IS GREAT FOR STORY
Advances the plot:
Every time you put characters in an uncomfortable situation, you force them to respond. Make sure their response has consequences—i.e. stuff happens as a result of their actions that wouldn’t have happened otherwise—and use that to set up the next scene.
Builds reader sympathy:
Everyone’s been uncomfortable. It’s a universal experience. Putting your characters into uncomfortable, distressing situations, big or small, builds a bridge between your readers and characters.
Readers are immediately sucked in, feeling the discomfort, turning pages to see how the character’s going to handle it and how things are going to turn out.
Creates varied emotional experiences:
Stories that take readers through a range of emotions are more powerful. But often, our stories have a certain vibe and we stick with it in every scene, and end up with a monotone of emotion. Every scene is tense, or funny, or high octane, or graceful and full of import. Uncomfortable situations can be incredibly tense, but they can also be incredibly funny. Vary what your character experiences and you’ll vary what your readers experience. It will elevate your story.
Highs and lows are what we’re going for. Any outcome you’re building to in a scene can usually be improved on by increasing the discomfort and tension you started with or had them experience mid-stream. A positive outcome will be far more satisfying if the character was out of their element and certain of defeat.
Creates intensely emotion- and character-driven scenes:
The moment your hero/ine is uncomfortable, they’re emotional. If you ever struggle with getting emotion on the page, or writing a character-driven story, or if your characters don’t shine as much as your plot, making them uncomfortable will immediately give you an ‘in’ into character and emotion.
When someone’s in hot water, we get to see who they really are. Discomfort pushes past personas and façades. Characters are forced to go deeper, to act from their deepest hurts and draw on their secret strengths.
Builds remarkable characters:
The more discomfort they experience, the more intense their attempts to resolve or escape from it, and the more extreme their actions. Extreme actions cannot be taken back; they have consequences. That’s what we want.
Advances character arcs:
In the beginning of the story, they use the ‘old’ ways to solve the problem. By the end, they’re using their ‘new’ ways. They are transformed, and we get to SEE evidence of the change by how they act.
UNCOMFORTABLE CHARACTERS HAVE A CHANCE TO BE REMARKABLE
Most people aren’t interesting while grocery shopping. Or brushing their teeth.
That’s why we don’t show these things. They’re not story.
People also aren’t usually at their most compelling when they’re reflecting on something that happened at the morning meeting or hanging out with a good friend who totally ‘gets’ us. Yet writers write those kinds of scenes all the time.
Story isn’t a series of scenes where things turned out as planned. Story is made up of scenes where things DON’T go as planned, and the character has to respond.
Why not have a display of cereal boxes fall down around your heroine while she’s in the grocery store? Now we get to see what she’s really made of.
Better yet, have the display fall because of something she did. Maybe she backed up into it while trying to hide from her ex she spotted in the produce aisle. Or from her boss. Or from the target of her unofficial, covert sleuthing.
And what if that person sees her anyhow—how could they not, when the entire display just crashed down around her?—and she’s standing there with broken-open cereal boxes all around her feet and grape nuts in her hair.
Now you have the potential for a true heroine. Extreme situations require deep-dug responses.
If you send your heroine to the grocery store, and she sees someone she doesn’t want to see, and escapes successfully without being spotted, with no consequences…where’s your story?? Why have that scene?
LET THEIR ACTIONS HAVE BIG OR UNEXPECTED CONSEQUENCES
The above examples were just that, examples of how to take a simple, mundane situation and tweak it to force your character into an uncomfortable state.
It doesn’t have to be silly situations or things gone wrong. But every story needs the main character(s) in discomfort. Regularly. And the discomfort has to force them to act.
At a scene-by-scene level, it means events that don’t go as planned. Or the character doesn’t get what they wanted.
Or they did…but it has unimagined consequences.
And to be clear: the consequences don’t have to be negative! I’m not saying things have to get consistently worse (although they do, at a story-wide level). But in any scene, things can turn out wildly BETTER than hoped. It’s just more satisfying after tribulation. If you push the discomfort to deeper levels, a ‘happy’ outcome will have more power.
BE WILLING TO MAKE THINGS GO BAD. REALLY BAD.
Often, when we write scenes where things don’t go well for our characters, they just go…well, sorta bad. It’s bad, but it’s not that bad. Or they get over it and smoothly move onto the next plot event. Or it has no consequences in upcoming scenes. Or a friend comes up and makes them feel better. Etc.
We’ve developed a thousand ways to get our characters out of hot water.
Because it makes us uncomfortable.
But to be truly remarkable, our characters need hot water. The hotter the better.
Ramp things up. Make things turn out the opposite of planned, worse (or better) than expected, or create unintended or unwanted consequences.
Medium-sized problems & medium-sized consequences require medium-sized characters and have a medium-sized impact on the reader.
Know what you get then? A medium story. A forgettable one.
Go big. Intensify…everything.
WHAT MAKES FOR GOOD DISCOMFORT?
- Public settings. We’re all more uncomfortable when there are witnesses;
- Being vulnerable;
- Being wrong;
- Interruptions, especially during a moment with high stakes;
- Out of proportion or unexpected responses from others/the world around
- Sudden realizations/insight in the middle of an action that show the action to be wrong/unnecessary;
- Settings at odds with the emotion/goal (ex: a private argument in a public place. Having an argument at a church service is harder than in a bedroom);
- Things that are difficult for your character specifically. A cereal box display falling over is going to be far worse for someone who’s socially anxious or self-conscious, or if it interferes with her scene goal.
Find a scene where the main character went into the scene wanting or expecting something. Flip to the end. Did they get it? As expected?
Try these deepening exercises to power things up:
- What’s the opposite of that outcome? Write it down.
- What are 3 worse outcomes? Write them down. Don’t worry that you can’t use these crazy ideas, or that it’ll require a full rewrite if you went with it. For now, just let your imagination go.
- What are 2 BETTER outcomes? How could things have gone better than your character hoped?
- Ten minutes ago, what would your main character have said would be the worst outcome? Can you make THAT happen?
- What’s an unexpected outcome? Something they couldn’t have seen coming? (Brainstorming skills matter here—it could be anything. Get with some friends, and ask for world-consistent but outrageous, uncommon, or unexpected things.)
- What are 2 embarrassing things that could happen? Write them down.
- Who’s the worst person who could have been in the scene to witness it? Can you put them there?
- What setting would make the scene more uncomfortable? Revise to put them there.
- What could happen to disrupt the setting? Make that thing happen.
- If you really need the scene to turn out as planned, revise so they begin the scene expecting the opposite, &/or do the above two ideas, by making the setting less conducive to their goal.
- If the outcome was positive/desirable, how can you complicate it, so one piece of it is negative/unexpected?
- If the outcome was negative, how can you give it a silver lining? These are things that can be reversed later, so the ‘bad’ thing ends up being beneficial (or even the best thing to have ever happened), and the sought-after thing is, in the end, not so great after all.
Rewrite the scene using one or more of these and see if it doesn’t open up new avenues for your character to be remarkable.
NO ONE CHANGES UNLESS THEY HAVE TO
In the end, no one changes until they’re forced to. By definition, discomfort pushes our characters out of their comfort zone.
That’s the only place transformation can occur.
Time to make ourselves uncomfortable by making our characters uncomfortable. Turn up the heat and create unforgettable characters and page-turning stories.
Let me know how it went!
Love this? Kris is teaching her class: Remarkable Characters with Kris Kennedy next week at SavvyAuthors!
Kris Kennedy is a USA Today bestselling author of historical and contemporary romance. She’s taught for Romance Writers of America, Kiss of Death, and WriterUniv.com, and offers developmental editing and story coaching. She has a free romance-focused newsletter, Tips, Tricks, & Love (LINK: http://eepurl.com/dw0TF1) with fun, easy to use tips and tricks for writers. \