You may be familiar with Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling, and if not, you should check it out. It’s got a lot a great one or two sentence tips that could come in really helpful for newer writers.
One that sticks out in particular for me relates to challenging your character:
6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
This is really, really good.
My favorite plotting device is the simple “man in the tree” scenario:
- Put a man in a tree.
- Throw rocks at him.
- Get him down.
You get the point, right? To state it another way, you could say: Put a character in a situation, present a challenge, present a solution.
The challenge can often be one of the most difficult parts to write convincingly. If not done well you run the risk of either making thing “too easy” for your protagonist, which may turn off your reader, or too unrealistically difficult, which may turn off the believably.
Don’t make it too easy
So what I like about the Pixar tip is that it helps prevent both of those scenarios. First, by taking your character out of their comfort zone, you are instantly creating conflict. You are also forcing your character to work and resolve the problem on his own–and therefore drive the plot. This is so important because in a well-developed story, the character will drive plot instead of reacting to it.
This is how you avoid making it too easy. It’s up to your character to solve the problem with action, instead of simply waiting out for the plot to resolve itself. So get him down from the tree may be better said as “get him down from the tree by his own actions.”
But be careful about making it too hard
Likewise, if you make it too difficult for your character to resolve the conflict, you may get stuck and end up with either an invincible Superman (or John Cena) character who the reader can’t relate to, or–even worse–a deus ex machina (or Star Trek) ending, where an unseen force or a stroke of luck resolve the conflict, and the character’s actions barely even matter.
Bonus: A quick remedy for writer’s block
Finally, the best part about this Pixar quote is that it points to a trick you can use to keep moving your story forward, and get “unstuck” when you’re stuck. In much the same way as finding out where your character is most comfortable and throwing the opposite at them, when you are wondering where to take your scene, ask yourself, “What is the worst possible thing that could happen right now?” and then throw that at them.
So to wrap things up, let’s remember the one most important thing about keeping your characters interesting: Challenge.
Thanks for reading, and if you’ve got any other tips about giving your characters challenges or conflict, leave a comment and let us know!