Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

Character

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I'm working on a story about a character climbing a mountain. There are plenty of obstacles and she is often in peril. Readers aren't thrilled, though and, to be honest, I'm not either. Is it possible I'm just not suited to write action-adventure?

Sure, it’s possible high action isn’t your domain. But before you abandon your character mid-climb on that mountain, consider this: What’s at stake? In some ways, the answer is simple. She’s risking her safety and perhaps even her life. In theory, such stakes are high. But your readers may not feel this urgency if they’re not emotionally connected to the character.

Think about it this way: On the nightly news you hear about a car crash that sent two people to the hospital where they remain in critical condition. You might feel some compassion for the people in this situation. You might even imagine what it’s like to be in that hospital in that kind of pain or to be the spouse that gets the devastating call. But imagine if the person in the accident were your close friend. The situation would be more immediate because you would be emotionally involved. You would know the implications of this accident and the multitude of losses—the husband who could lose a wife, the garden that she takes such pride in that may go untended, the unique laughter that could go silent in your own life.

Fiction should embrace the reader and bring her close to the character’s experience. You can give your work more tension by showing what’s at stake for this particular individual. Yes, her safety and perhaps even her life are at stake, but what does that mean to her? What would go unaccomplished? What would she not see or experience? Who does she think of in her own life when she fears death or grave injury? Yes, the accomplishment of her goal is at stake, but what does that mean to her? Is she climbing this mountain to prove something to herself? Will she forever feel inferior to her successful younger sister? Will she resign herself to the fact that she really can’t follow through on anything, a thought that has dogged for nearly a decade of smaller failures? There are quite a few possibilities. Take into account your character’s unique personality, her connections to others in her life, and her desires, motivations and fears.

Conflict, no matter how extreme, can’t do the work alone. You need to delve into characterization in order to electrify conflict. With a bit more development in this direction, readers may find this a much more charged situation.