Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Throw Rocks at Your Characters (It’s Good for Them!)

By Angela Ackerman

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Sending a character into an emotional spiral is a great way to add conflict to scene or build more tension in a novel. Angela Ackerman joins us today to share tips on how to stress out our characters to create better stories.

Take it away, Angela...
If there’s one thing we all know, it’s that life is stressful. Each day, we’re bombarded with obstacles, challenges, and upsets. We navigate what we can, go to bed, and do it all again the next day.

Do we like stress? No. But adversity builds resiliency. Problem-solving under pressure means we push onward, try new things, and learn on the go. Our trials help us gain new skills, competency, and confidence. In short, we grow!
Growth is a big deal when it comes to our characters, because at the start of the story, well, they just don’t have what it takes to succeed. Maybe they’re stuck in some way, or have some bad habits and dysfunction, or perhaps they need to stretch themselves to gain skills and knowledge so they can handle the road ahead.

The problem with characters is many have a natural inclination to resist the hard things, especially when it means leaving the safety of what they know. 

It can be scary outside the comfort zone, so scary that your character may decide it’s better to put up with a not-so-great situation than risk leaving for the possibility of something better.

The more a character has been hurt by life, the more resistant they will be to change and challenge. But, if we don’t force them into the big bad unknown and toward their goal, our story dies. This is our cue to pick up a rock or two. 

However unhappy they are, we need to make it worse. Whatever problems or responsibilities are weighing them down, we need to add to their load until it becomes unbearable. In short, if fear is holding them back, we need to find a way to take their circumstances from ‘manageable’ to ‘untenable.’

One Rock to Rule Them All: Emotion Amplifiers

When we need to stress a character and make them emotionally volatile, our rock of choice is an emotion amplifier. This is a state or condition that, in the moment, adds additional physical, mental, or psychological strain that can push characters to their breaking point. Pain, pressure, scrutiny, exhaustion, danger…if your character is already strained, an amplifier can cause them to lose control of their emotions, and they react, leading to rashness, poor judgment, missteps, and mistakes. This conflict is good for the story as your character will be forced to deal with the aftermath of acting on emotion, not thought and logic.

On the flip side, elevated emotional stress levels can also prompt a character to rise to the occasion, smashing through their mental blocks and fear to act. They aren’t pushed out of their comfort zone because of a loss of control, instead they take the step themselves, showing courage.

Either way, emotional stress is a valuable teacher. Mistakes and failures contain lessons. Regret in the wake of impatience and poor judgment becomes fuel for better self-regulation next time. And stepping up in the moment helps characters discover inner strength.

(Here's more with Using Vocal Cues to Show Hidden Emotion)  

The Upside to Emotional Stress: Character Growth

It might seem evil to intentionally cause internal discomfort for our characters, but there’s a good reason to do it—a lot of good reasons, actually—and they all have to do with character development.

1. Stress can facilitate self-awareness.

Most of us find it difficult to look within ourselves at our areas of struggle, and characters are no different. They may be in denial about many things, including how fear is holding them back—the fear of disappointing others, of stepping out of their comfort zone, or letting go of the past to become who they were always meant to be. When we force characters to endure emotional stress, they have no choice but to examine themselves and the inconsistencies they live with. It also gives them a chance to set aside false beliefs and discover their own strength.

Let’s imagine your story has a character with self-esteem issues. Day-to-day, they take a back seat to other people and avoid situations that would call attention to their perceived weaknesses. But when something meaningful is on the line, using an emotion amplifier like competition or scrutiny can produce additional stress and navigating this additional challenge helps them see they are capable of more than they thought.

(Here's more with Are Your Characters Living in the Moment or Watching it Pass By?)  

2. Stress can push overburdened characters to stand up for themselves.

Another potential positive of emotional stress is when it pushes an overloaded character to advocate for themselves. Consider a teacher who oversees an after-school program for teens that provides a safe space for them to come together and socialize. She started the group with a handful of kids, but it quickly grew, and with it, the work of organizing activities, providing snacks, and managing a range of personalities. The school’s administration is quick to promote the program and brag about it in the media, but when funding or volunteers are requested . . . crickets. Because this teacher loves her kids and she knows how much the program is needed, she soldiers on.

But if we add an emotional amplifier such as burnout in the classroom, an emerging mental health condition, or chronic pain from an injury, the teacher could reach a point where she must find her voice and demand help. The truth is, emotional stress often has to reach a critical level before characters will extricate themselves from an unsustainable situation and stand up for themselves.

(Here's more with The Catalyst for Character Change: The Dark Night of the Soul)  

3. Stress can underscore the need for caution.

Amplifiers sometimes act as false flags, lowering a character’s guard and lulling them into thinking everything is fine. When a character experiences attraction or arousal, for instance, their emotions are activated as they focus on the other person. But as their attention is diverted, they may fail to notice an enemy closing in, or an ally being compromised. The fallout of not paying attention, even if it becomes a close call, will teach them to be more aware and may help them avoid disaster later in the story.

(Here's more with Do You Feel It? Writing With Emotional Layers)  

4. Stress can push characters to hone their skills.

Emotional stress from a challenge or problem can force a character to shake the rust off old skills or, out of necessity, learn new ones. Consider mortal peril when life itself hangs in the balance. A character may have to snap back into who they were in their combat days—a lethal killer. Or an urban youth who is the sole survivor of a plane crash will have to develop skills on the go to overcome amplifiers like hunger, thirst, and danger.

(Here's more with 4 Ways to Create Emotional Peril in Your Characters)  

It can be hard sometimes to think of ways to show readers that our characters are growing, especially as we lob rock after rock to keep the tension high. 

Emotion amplifiers are great in that they have the power to stress characters to the point they lose control, and if they do, the resulting complications and pain becomes a lesson for next time.

Want to see a list of amplifiers that can become rocks of conflict and vehicles for change? Just go here. And for more ideas on how to use amplifiers to strengthen your emotional scenes, check out The Emotion Amplifier Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Stress and Volatility.

Angela Ackerman is a story coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, and its many sequels. Available in nine languages, her guides are sourced by universities, recommended by agents and editors, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world. To date, this series has sold over a million copies. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers®, as well as One Stop for Writers®, a portal to game-changing tools and resources that enable writers to craft powerful fiction. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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