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Monday, November 24

What Makes Your Characters Uncomfortable?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Everyone has their hot buttons topics--the ones that get their blood boiling, or makes their skin crawl, or triggers an inappropriate response to the situation. While this isn't much fun to encounter in real life, it's a great way to create conflict and tension in a novel. Pushing someone's hot button (either accidentally or on purpose) can cause a character to act in ways they otherwise wouldn't.

Take at look at your current project and list the important characters: your protagonist, antagonist, secondary characters and anyone who might be in a position to affect how a scene plays out. Think about those characters and their background, their hopes and fears, their education, their opinions, and ask them:

  • What makes you uncomfortable?
  • What makes you furious beyond rational thought?
  • What makes you change the subject or walk away from a conversation?
  • What don't you want to think about?
  • What scares you?

(Here's are more fun things to ask when creating characters)

Next, try looking at how your characters might answer these questions as they directly apply to the story. You can ask these questions about specific plot points or goals, or use them as a way to deepen or flesh out individual scenes.
  • What makes you uncomfortable about the current situation?
  • What makes you furious beyond rational thought about the problem you're facing?
  • What makes you change the subject or walk away from a conversation that you need to have to solve your current problem?
  • What don't you want to think about what you have to do?
  • What scares you about attempting this goal or solving this problem?

(Here's another way to get to know your characters)

Finally, take these answers and look for ways they might add additional layers in your story. Facing fears is often a compelling part of a character's story arc, and even in a more plot-focused tale, forcing a character to deal with what scares them can add wonderful conflict and excitement. Think about:
  • Where might you make these characters uncomfortable in one (or more) of the above ways?
  • Where might the hot buttons of one character trigger the hot buttons of another?
  • Where might a hot-button reaction completely throw a character for a loop and cause them to make a bad decision?
  • Where might a hot-button topic inadvertently send a character in the right direction?
  • Where might a hot-button topic teach a character a much-needed lesson?
  • Where might a uncomfortable character add interesting subtext to a scene?

(Here's more on what your secondary characters are good at)

While not every scene has to be flooded with uncomfortable characters, it's a handy tool for scenes where you know you need more conflict but aren't sure how to add it. It's also useful for throwing obstacles in a character's way when there normally wouldn't be any problems with what they need to do.

What makes your characters uncomfortable?

Looking for tips on planning or revising your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Thanks. This is a very useful post. I will be posting your link on my blog.

  2. Love it - these triggers can be used dramatically or comically, depending

    1. Absolutely, sometimes both at once!

  3. Oh, these are such great questions! Thanks for the reminder. Happy Thanksgiving, Janice!

    1. Glad you liked them, Happy Thanksgiving to you, too!

  4. Great tips! I'm doing a rewrite at present, so these tips come at a good time.

  5. This is wonderful information! Thank you Janice!