by Lillian Csernica on January 26, 2015 We all know the feeling. We sit down at our keyboards to do the day’s writing, and there’s nothing in our heads but white noise. Vague ideas chase each other around. Nothing ignites. No conversations start between characters. Now what? I won NaNoWriMo last year, my first time out. The secret to my success became one simple question: How can I ruin my hero’s/heroine’s day today? Good storytelling is made of conflict, and conflict comes from throwing every plausible obstacle into your protagonist’s path. Sometimes you can get away with some implausible obstacles too, but go easy on those unless you’re sure they don’t damage the rest of the story. Let’s look at my work-in-progress today. My hero Tendo has just won a game of shogi against his father. This is the first time Tendo has ever beaten Oto-san at shogi. All those hours spent playing shogi against himself while he was still in exile during Book One have now brought him a victory he’s longed for ever since Oto-san taught him how to play the game. They sit back, light their pipes, and engage in some good-natured father-son joking about whether or not my heroine Yuriko has learned to cook. All this is lovely and tranquil, right? Surely Tendo has earned a few pleasant moments after at least two assassination attempts. He has indeed earned them, but the key words there are “a few.” Tendo’s father chooses this moment to raise the issue of the children that Tendo and Yuriko will have. He’s Japanese, she’s British by birth. That means the children will be “kon ketsu” or, to use the modern term, hapa. The children will be half-breeds. To a samurai, this is intolerable. Tendo’s father tells him that when Tendo’s oldest sister marries, Tendo’s father will adopt her husband as his heir.
I have just disinherited my hero. Because he married Yuriko, a gaijin, and she will be the mother of his children, Tendo will lose his place as eldest son and heir to the Tendo family line. In the world of the samurai, I have just ripped away the foundations of Tendo’s identity and sense of self. There is nothing he can do but bow his head respectfully and leave the room. Now that he feels cut off from his family, the only person Tendo can go to is Yuriko herself. This leads to Tendo learning what happened in an earlier scene when Yuriko and Tendo’s mother faced off over tea with both of Tendo’s sisters on hand to watch the genteel combat.
I ruined Yuriko’s day, and then I ruined Tendo’s day. This is a romance novel, so the pain they’re both feeling will draw them closer together, right up to the moment where it drives them apart again. And people think writing romance novels is easy.
What does your protagonist want most? At that moment? In the big picture? Let him or her think he or she has finally gotten it, then yank the rug out and turn the world upside down. Here’s another secret to this whole process. If you find yourself resisting the urge to do something really terrible to your protagonist, that means you’re on the right track. I love my characters. I don’t want to hurt them or make their lives any worse. That’s the Reader in me talking. The Writer in me has to rain down hell and damnation at every turn to keep Readers reading and to show my protagonists are determined to win no matter what. Keep the pressure on, right up to that moment when your protagonist has to risk it all in the climactic moment of the story. Go big or go home, right?