A point that was raised on another blog I follow is something many authors struggle with: devising the complicating events that raise levels of risk for the protagonist, and also for the antagonist. A compelling story evolves when the antagonist is strong, but not omnipotent. The protagonist must also be stronger than she thought she was, but still not omnipotent.
Small hindrances must occur between the larger events, frustrating the journey. These things delay the protagonist, and sometimes send them down the wrong path, but as each is overcome the reader feels a small sense of satisfaction. Following the protagonist as he/she is negotiating these detours is what makes the story captivating, in my opinion.
If you have a story of any length, short or long, you can’t have people sitting around idly chit-chatting. Conversations must have a purpose, and be designed to advance the plot. Information emerges that the protagonist (or antagonist) must know. The reader discovers this at the same time as the characters.
In the literary novel “Better You Go Home” by Scott Driscoll, Chico Lenoch, a Seattle attorney, is desperately ill and needs a family member to donate a kidney. None of his family members here locally are suitable donors. He has always wondered about his family in the Czech Republic, which his father won’t discuss, and has recently discovered he has a half-sister still living there. He journeys there to find his sister, and in the process, he unearths the secrets his father and mother left behind. As each terrible secret is revealed, hindrances arise. Danger, political fallout, personal vendettas, and a growing concern for his sister conspire with Chico’s failing health to keep him from achieving his goal.
If the path had been easy, Chico’s story would have been an exploration of a man with a problem, but not real exciting. Because of the roadblocks, it’s a taut thriller, and his journey comes to an unexpected and electrifying conclusion.
This notion of making the path difficult is explored well in Stephen Swartz’s literary fantasy, A Dry Patch of Skin. The story opens in Croatia but moves to Oklahoma. This tale is a fantasy in the sense it’s an exploration of vampirism, but is literary and gripping in its plausibility. Two of my favorite lines of all time are in the opening chapters of this novel:
Mirrors are such odd devices, and whoever invented them should have been killed. They purport to show us the true state of affairs and yet everything is distorted.
The protagonist, a man of Hungarian descent, named Stefan Székely, has a disturbing genetic skin condition and embarks on a quest to find a cure, desperate to somehow salvage his relationship with Penny. He has a job as a phlebotomist, which allows him to conceal his ailment, but eventually he is unable to hide it. Many roadblocks arise, interfering with Stefan’s success, forcing him to seek a cure in Budapest, but even that trip is fraught with frustrations. Because of those hindrances, the tension builds toward the end, making for a gripping read. The novel ends in an unexpected fashion and is one that stayed with me for a long time after.
Both these novels detail a seemingly ordinary thing—a person dealing with a life-threatening illness, both seeking a cure that seems like it should be easy but which becomes virtually impossible. In both novels, the roadblocks and detours along the journey create compelling narratives I found impossible to put down.
Both are set in a contemporary setting, and both have surprising endings that could only have been arrived at because of the roadblocks and hindrances placed in the paths of the protagonists.
This is why we can’t make it easy for our characters. The struggle is the story.