One of the strangest things about writing fiction is that it often needs to make more sense than real life.
In real life, people fall into grief-stricken states of paralysis, wander around aimlessly without knowing what they’re looking for, and endlessly endure unpleasantness without trying to change anything about their circumstances. It’s extremely difficult to make those things interesting in a novel.
When we’re reading novels, it’s confusing and even frustrating when a character doesn’t act in accordance with their desires. To put it more simply: characters who care about something need to act like they care about it. They need to prioritize coherently (if not always rationally).
If they’re terrified, they need to act terrified. They shouldn’t be in the mood to stop in a place of danger and engage in endless breezy banter.
If they’re stuck, it’s helpful to see them at least try to escape so we can grasp the contours of their obstacles.
But there’s still plenty of room for humans to be human. One way you can give your character more latitude to act irrationally and convey to the reader that they really do care is to let their emotions spill out unpredictably.
A character under stress should act like it
Particularly when a writer has fallen a bit too in love with their dialogue, they can unintentionally create incongruities where it feels like a character can’t possibly care about what’s happening in the narrative if they are so unruffled that they have all the time in the world to engage in witty banter.
Now, this can be made to work. The James Bond-ish unflappable hero is an archetype for a reason. But the way to pull this off isn’t to show nothing at all getting to the protagonist. It’s to show stress building and then leaking out in unpredictable ways.
For example, a young protagonist who suffers an indignity from a teacher at school may not be able to immediately channel their frustration. If they were to lash out at the teacher, they’d get in still-more trouble, so they may well bite their tongue in the moment. But instead of simply moving on, the injustice should build and fester, and the protagonist might lash out at a safer target, like a friend or parent, or engage in some risky or uncharacteristic behavior. That acting out may well compound the stress even further.
In other words, the conflict isn’t just allowed to dissipate. It’s more like a ticking time bomb.
The most important principle here: Don’t let a good conflict go to waste!
Don’t let your character’s emotions just disappear. Pour them into an increasingly unmanageable bucket that might spill over at any time.
The emotions bucket
It’s really dangerous to release the tension you’ve built over the course of the novel. Yes, your characters (and the reader) may need moments to catch their breath and reflect. But they shouldn’t be able to reset all the way to a stress free baseline if they genuinely care about what’s happening in the novel.
Let conflicts between characters linger and make reconciliations excruciating. Make even the quiet moments fraught and packed with tension.
Over the course of the novel, indignities, stress, conflicts may pile upon each other in such a way that the character reaches a crisis point. This is often a nadir that brings out their worst characteristics before they need to summon something inside themselves to ascend toward the climax.
But even before the nadir, let your characters act out from time to time. Don’t let them off the hook, don’t let their emotions be easily swept away, stay wholly in tune with the indignities, stresses, conflicts, and physical exertions they’ve endured. Don’t be too nice to your characters. Let us see their best and worst qualities.
And have fun with it! Even the best characters need a chance to play the villain sometimes.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes, my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
Art: Summer Evening by Edvard Munch