Peggy Bechko: Writers Creating Frustration

frustrationby Peggy Bechko

What the heck do your character want and why should/shouldn’t they get it?

That’s the question.

If your characters want or need something and there’s something ‘out there’ that stops them from getting it, that leads to frustration and frustration leads to better stories.

Think I’m wrong?

Think about this. Jack and Jill meet in high school, decide to go to the same college, later get married, have a couple of kids, get great jobs and carry on…

Interesting? NO!

So you’re gonna have to work with it. What might characters want that they can’t get? Maybe one wants to uncover a murderer, another wants to save the planet, or at least his neighborhood, another wants money, lots of money, yet another is desperate to save a dying loved one who needs a transplant and can’t get one. Whatever it is it needs to be something the character wants/needs very VERY badly.

So what might stop the character from getting what he wants?

Could be another character. The other character has different goals, ones that conflict. Could simply be differing goals (like in the movie UP; big corporations want to build on land where ‘hero’s small house stands – he intends to stay and his frustration ultimately causes havoc) or other character could have evil motivation. Could be both are evil. Maybe neither. Characters regularly come into conflict when both feel they are ‘right’ and their goal ‘noble’ but those goals are opposites or simply methods of getting there are at odds. And of course it doesn’t have to stop with just two characters, there can be many viewpoints and influences.

There are also external events for characters to contend with, things that happen out of their control and can be very frustration. Weather happens. Tornados, hurricanes, storms, floods, blizzards, earthquakes (if that last can be called weather). Terrible snows can cause avalanches, floods can float houses away and take out bridges, earthquakes, well, earthquakes…!

Also on the ‘external’ list are things like a cell phone that won’t get service, a car that breaks down (could do it of its own accord or perhaps someone sabotaged it). A plane has minor problems delaying its departure from the gate, changing everything and frustrating protagonist. If it’s historical a horse could come up lame, a buckboard could lose a wheel, a train could be derailed, the telegraph down, the ship sinking.

Well, you get the idea. There are many frustrations your characters can enjoy. But one word of advice. If you supply something along these lines you need to hint of it before. For example, if there’s a hurricane coming and you intend a bridge to be taken out, it could simply give way before the powerful force of pounding water – but what if a contractor is responsible for shoddy construction? Then perhaps it’s necessary to give an idea of what shape the bridge is in before the hurricane. But do it subtly so the reader gets a hint, but doesn’t have it thrown in his or her face.

The ideal is to catch your readers by surprise…but not too much surprise. By that I mean the event may be surprising, but when the reader digests it all, he thinks, “Oh, yes, I suspected there’d be a problem because_______.”

Tease your readers, keep your characters in character and let them fight for what they want.