It’s been a difficult winter around here. Not just in terms of delving into yet another snowy Minnesota season… I’m speaking mostly about what my clients’ characters are going through. Protagonists in projects this winter seem to all have some common issues with self-worth. I’m reading so many attempts at putting difficult emotions on the page that I wanted to address them in a post. Everybody struggles, and so no protagonist should be spared from some good old-fashioned inner conflict.
As people, we sometimes hate ourselves, criticize ourselves, feel self-doubt, perform acts of self-sabotage. It’s just a part of being human. We are our own worst enemies, etc. As realistic as these feelings are, they should be treated with some caution when we try to translate them to the page.
To illustrate, let me talk for a minute about that person many of us know in life. Their Facebook feed is full of gripes about their injustice of the day. The bank closed early, ugh. The grocery clerk forgot to bag their mustard. Nobody invited them to the picnic. Their Goodreads review was ridiculed. If you know them well enough to be on their call list, it’s likely that you don’t get a word in edgewise as they detail the litany of hurts they’ve overcome…in the last 15 minutes. The point is, nobody likes a complainer. If you haven’t Unfriended them online, you may skip their calls when they come in. It can get to be too much.
One of the biggest reasons is usually that this personality type would rather complain that do anything about the problem. They are inactive in terms of overcoming their issues. If you try to help them with a perfectly reasonable solution, they probably don’t want to hear it. They just want to be heard and for someone to say, “Wow, that sucks.” But they’re stuck, and I personally find that maddening.
So a character who is full of woe or self-loathing or doubt only tends to magnify this dynamic. Fiction is an elevated version of life, where realistic things are elevated into something that can retain a person’s interest, be consumed, and ideally impart some valuable experience or lesson. As such, protagonists can’t be direct downloads of realistic people. They need to have momentum, even if they’re stuck in a rut.
If I see a character who has, for example, intense survivor’s guilt after a car accident, and they keep coming back to the point of “I don’t want to be alive. I wish I was the one who died,” that’s perfectly realistic. But I don’t want to sink four or five hours of my time into that emotional rut. There needs to be some traction and change as the plot moves along. The character needs to acknowledge their emotions, struggle with them, aim to change their situation, fail, struggle, acknowledge their new position, struggle, aim to change, etc. etc. etc. That sort of trajectory, at least, takes the reader on an emotional journey.
This is where stuck emotions and fiction are at odds. People who are stuck are…stuck. Self-loathing doesn’t lift in a week. Addiction doesn’t resolve itself because you meet a cute vampire boy. Inadequacy doesn’t fade after an amazing road trip. So there needs to be some suspension of disbelief to allow plot to act on these difficult emotions. As a result, the emotions are agitated, stretch, or grow, and there’s a level of payoff for both character and reader.
I think this is a really tough time for our culture. Since the economic downturn, kids are entering an uncertain world where they know they’ll face diminished job prospects, outstanding student loan balances, and an economy that’s far from booming. Stuck feelings, angst, and doubt are common. Issues of dreams and identity are more resonant than ever. All of these emotions deserve to be addressed. But just because a character is stuck doesn’t mean the narrative can be. If you’re working with a stuck character, make sure that their emotions still shift and change and grow over the course of the story instead of being bogged down in a rut. Some forward progress and redemption is expected if it’s going to be worth your reader’s investment of time and energy.