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.