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Bad Obstacles

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a good character obstacle lately. What kinds of things should your character butt up against in the pursuit of their objective? What kinds of things make for less-than-stellar hurdles to jump over? Well, if your reader is meant to be emotionally invested in your protagonist’s journey to the climax of the story, they will need to struggle. A lot. They will need to pursue a very important goal and get shot down as often as possible. In fact, the only time they should really succeed is during the climactic action of the novel (or picture book, though obviously goals, obstacles, and attempts at achieving the objective are appropriately scaled down, and the failures aren’t as catastrophic).

Whether your obstacles are smaller frustrations or major roadblocks, some things just don’t work. One is the internal obstacle of “I can’t.” “Can’t” is a four-letter word in fiction, when uttered by both character and writer. When a character says “I can’t,” my first instinct is to ask, “Why not?” Sometimes it’s valid. In ALCHEMY AND MEGGY SWANN by Karen Cushman, Meggy’s legs are maimed. When she says she can’t go up stairs, I believe her. Or if your worldbuilding dictates that characters can’t fly, it’s good that you’re keeping it consistent. But when a character flat-out refuses to do something, there must be a real reason behind it (like a fear of heights precluding them from climbing the Eiffel Tower that has been established in the book for a long time as crucially important), or the obstacle will feel flimsy. It’s one thing for a character to say they can’t. Writers often stop there. But if the reader is to understand their position, there should be real motivation there, or it’s a nonstarter.

On a side note, it really irks me on a logical level when writers say “can’t.” This often happens when I give them food for thought during a critique and they have the knee-jerk reaction of, “Oh, that would take too much revision and I simply can’t.” Why not? You are making everything up. If the way you’ve made something up precludes you from trying something new, simply dream your way out of the old rules and come up with another framework. “Can’t” has no place in fiction. (I often hear it for what it most likely is: “Don’t wanna.”)

Another flimsy character obstacle is one that depends entirely on another character’s will. This is often a true non-starter. If your plot is riding on your character borrowing their big brother’s car, and they ask their brother, and the brother says, “No,” well…you’re SOL, aren’t you? You’re at an impasse. There should always be other avenues to reach the objective, other actions your character can play, etc. Plus, it’s frustrating to read a situation when the other character’s refusal seems arbitrary. Just like with “can’t,” if I feel like they could easily change their minds, then I’m not buying that it’s a real obstacle.

So just like your characters, objectives, and motivations, your obstacles should be more dynamic.

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  1. Julie Daines’s avatar

    These are excellent.

    Another bad obstacle that I often read in YA is information withholding: Someone who supposedly care’s about the main character withholds a piece of information that, if told, could resolve all kinds of problems; but for some reason they refuse to tell. It just doesn’t work for me.

  2. Corinne’s avatar

    This is advice I received from you through a critique of my ms and have taken to heart. Such excellent and valid advice (of course!) and a hard pill to swallow when the remedy is tons of revision. The “don’t wanna” really needs to be put away if the story requires reworking. Thank you as always for fabulous posts.

  3. Shannon’s avatar

    I have a similar problem when asking students to analyze literature (or t.v., or movies, or any kind of fiction). They will suggest that a writer HAD to write something a certain way because…she had written something else a certain way and that is what fit.

    It’s FICTION. She could have written ANYTHING, right? So rather than give an argument that is internal to a work of fiction, a reader needs to think about what external motivations might be leading to the whole piece being what it is. They could be Big societal norms or they could be small personal matters. But with fiction, a writer makes all of her choices. She isn’t required to do anything at all.

    I think about that a lot as I write, myself, and find it very helpful when I need to escape a trap of my own devising.

  4. Mary’s avatar

    Julie — YES! This is an offshoot of the last type of bad obstacle that I mention, and something I should’ve mentioned explicitly. This is one of the worst. “I just…can’t tell you that right now.” Then the plot becomes a waiting game until some arbitrary point when the character magically “can” reveal the necessary information. That’s a nonstarter. Thank you so much for the reminder.

  5. Franziska Green’s avatar

    There’s no such thing as can’t! My grandmother used to say that to me all the time. Now Mary’s at it too. Clearly I need to think more like the Little Engine That Could.

  6. Brenda Ferber’s avatar

    This is exactly why I didn’t like The Artist. I kept wondering what the big obstacle was that Valentin had to overcome. Why didn’t he just try acting with words? If he had tried and failed for some real reason, that movie would have been much more compelling. But he just basically said, “I can’t.”

  7. Sarah’s avatar

    *spoiler*

    In The Artist’s defense, he did have an obstacle – the fact that he was French and not American. That was what was supposed to be revealed by his one line of dialogue. You can debate whether or not it was a good obstacle, but the obstacle was there.

  8. Sami’s avatar

    Ugh. Yes! I hate when a character just says “I can’t” and leaves it at that. Give me back story! Give me a reason!

    I have a character I’m toying with currently. He never says “can’t.” But he often says “don’t wanna.” I think it’s more indicative of his character than “can’t.” And it’s so much more fun when he doesn’t want to do something, but he doesn’t get the choice anyways.

    I’m an evil writer. XD I get great joy from inflicting pain on my characters. The more, the better.

  9. Brenda Ferber’s avatar

    Sarah,
    That’s true, but I was annoyed that we didn’t know that until the end. Too little, too late, in my opinion. I know I’m in the minority here… most everyone loved The Artist. I was trying to pinpoint what it was that bothered me about that movie, and Mary’s explanation of bad conflicts struck a chord. The whole time I watched The Artist, I kept wishing I was watching Singin in the Rain instead… a similar storyline, but a much stronger conflict. (Not to mention the great singing and dancing!)

  10. TC Avey’s avatar

    Good points. I like how you explain things. I’m so glad I found your site through Steve Laube’s site.

  11. Damon Dean’s avatar

    Great points… I probably need to be more sensitive on the dynamics in my plots. It isn’t something I’ve been conscious of, particularly. Thanks Mary for the insight and advice.

  12. Sophie’s avatar

    But wasn’t the poit of the Artist that it was a silent movie? You can’t have a silent movie where people talk, can you? I mean it’s rather counter-productive.

  13. jen’s avatar

    Ah, The Artist… Glad I’m not the only one who had some trouble with the plotting/character development for this, it’s really been bugging me (especially as everybody else loved it…!) -
    *spoilery*
    it was just that Valentin actually caused his own problems by chucking all his money away on his ego, and then sat around wallowing (and not paying the damn chauffeur for a year while he still had the wretched projection equipment to pawn…!). I had issues rooting for the character who was basically his own antagonist, and then I started having issues with the other sympathetic characters letting him get away with it (up to and including the poor dog…!).
    And, yep, I was wishing I was watching Singin in the Rain instead as well… Mostly because it’s all about the main characters’ insanely optimistic problem-solving in the face of other peoples’ absurd egos :-)

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