Tension Begins with Character Tension Series Part 2

People often think of tension in fiction as arising mostly from plot. If we were to put any character in the circumstances facing Harry Potter, wouldn’t there be tension? Let’s say Hermione were the protagonist. We’d still be worried if she attempted to take on Lord Voldemort. Of course, he wouldn’t have killed her parents, so she’d lack Harry’s obsession. She might be more sensible and let others lead. The wizarding world wouldn’t be the only real home she’d ever known, so maybe she’d give up at some point and move back in with her parents. The fight is personal to Harry, and that’s where tension starts.

What a protagonist wants or needs brings stakes to the action. Stakes connect a particular protagonist to a particular plot. Stakes mean that what happens matters. Tension mounts when wants or needs are obstructed (see Tension: The Secret to Storytelling) – the clash of oppositional forces, and not just in the plot, but on the level of character.

For the greatest tension, oppositional forces should be carried within the protagonist. The kind of characters who are out of balance inside. Whose survival systems are being exhausted, but who are still in resistance to change. Who are stuck in old patterns of behavior that are holding them back. Whose fears are blocking what they most desire or need.

Tension in character comes from these sorts of fundamental inner conflicts: resistance to change versus a need to change; fear versus desire. We get both the tension of the conflict and the tension of uncertainty. What will the character do?

As writers, we can increase this tension by pulling on both ends: making the want or need more significant and the inner resistance or fear even stronger. The outer setbacks and obstacles in the plot should give teeth to the conflict inside. The antagonist in the plot should be like a dark shadow cast by the protagonist’s flaws – the person he or she might become if he or she fails to change and grow. (More about plot will follow later in this series.)

Having our protagonists carry the potential for darkness makes them more credible and human. In any case, being a victim isn’t enough. If your protagonist is only in trouble from outside forces, you deny yourself the power of an interior arc of growth and change. You also risk compassion fatigue. But another reason is that inner conflict is a valuable source of tension. You want to use that. As you write, always try moving in the direction of tension to find your most compelling story.

Theme as a source of tension is closely related to character. The oppositional forces inside your protagonist should reflect the tensions in the theme. If you think of the central truth driving your fiction as being what at the deepest level you’re trying to say with your book, then your protagonist should begin in resistance to that truth. (See The Truth Behind Fiction.) Character is an embodiment of thematic tension.

In all these ways, the root of tension is character, no matter what type of fiction you’re writing. Character embodies the theme, drives the stakes, and carries the core tensions that will find their expression in plot. To orchestrate tension on the level of character, the most important thing is to stay aware of how your protagonist feels. This may sound simple, but it’s the hard work of sympathetic imagination. (See Writing as a Full Body Experience.) Try to internalize your protagonist’s deepest desires and fears to the point of actual physical sensation. To carry his or her core tensions in your gut. To sense what his or her reactions would to be everything that happens and make sure that gets reflected on the page. Not in a bald statement, but in how the characters speak, what they do, how they perceive things, and how they filter experience.

A strong protagonist is a story just waiting to happen. You’ll know you’ve found one by the tension he or she gives off.

My Tension Series examines the many opportunities for tension in fiction and ways to exploit and combine them. Next month: Stakes and Sympathy.



The Things We Carry

Unlike personality, state of mind is constantly changing. But that doesn’t happen in a vacuum, not for people and not for characters. How we feel in any given instance is a complex interaction of who we are, what we face, and what we carry with us: our recent experiences, our relevant past, our concerns, our hopes and our fears. Progressing and expressing state of mind is critical to generating tension in fiction, as well as to forging an emotional connection with readers. However, simply stating how a character feels invites incredulity, and dumping a load of back story can undermine the forward action of a piece. Writers must look for more artful ways to convey what their characters carry.

1. Triggers for Memory

If your character was previously traumatized in a way that has significance for the present story, he or she will need to share those difficult memories, but only as they press upon the character’s mind. Relevance is key to building tension. Events in the present, even images or smells, can be used to trigger a vivid recollection of the past. Such memories are best shared in scene, so that readers can experience them along with the character. The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan is a good example of how even extensive secrets of the past can be revealed in ways that enhance rather than dissipate tension.

2. Wear the Scars

A character who was raped should act like someone who was raped, even if the readers don’t know it. Same with other wounds, both psychic and real. Ernest Hemingway was a great believer in leaving his characters’ past in the past, but they wear their scars in how they behave. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake has clearly been injured in the war, but we don’t know much more than that; still, we ache when we see him and Lady Brett unable to consummate their love and overpowering attraction. His stoicism makes it impossible for him as a character to share more or even complain, but that only makes us as readers all the more empathetic.

3. Invest the Past in the Present

In The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, the loss of the main character’s mother at the beginning is tied up with his clinging to the painting of a goldfinch. When he laboriously wraps it in duct tape in a sad attempt to protect it, we’re reminded of the bombing that almost destroyed it and took his mother away. The trauma in the earlier part of the book has been invested in something that’s part of the real-time story, so that the reader carries it forward along with the character.

4. Objective Correlatives

Objective correlative is a fancy term for saying that perceptions are colored by feelings. If your point-of-view character is angry, the furniture looks hard, the food tastes bad, and the weather seems bleak. If it happens to be raining, all the better; if it happens to be sunny, then it’s painfully bright. This holds true whether you’re writing in first person or close third: we see everything, even solid objects, through the filter of the character’s state of mind. Your choice of telling details also comes into this – what you include should be guided by what would be most revealing of the character at that moment.

5. Figurative Language

Imagery and metaphor can reflect a character’s state of mind and keep it present for readers going forward. Figurative language can even amplify and deepen a character’s concerns. In Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, the tightrope walker suspended impossibly high above them acts to unite the disparate characters, both literally and figuratively, as the reader grasps that in a sense they’re all walking a high thin wire. It is an aspect of state of mind that they share.

6. Intuition

Most important of all, writers need to use their intuition. (See Writing as a Full Body Experience.) They must internalize their main character’s state of mind to find the most real and honest reactions they can. We’ve all read books in which the main character seems to be suffering from sudden amnesia. If something big happens, it should impact the character’s feelings. We expect there to be cause and effect. To progress and convey the things that characters carry inside them, writers must first carry them inside themselves.