Writers don’t know when it happens, and usually only dedicated readers will notice, but one of the greatest tragedies that can befall a novel is when the plot lets down the characters. I don’t mean when bad things happen to the hero–I mean when a fascinating character is bursting with potential… and then falls flat.
I first noticed this problem in high school. I was reading a series of books about the Civil War, and one of them introduced a character I was crazy about. She was intense, vulnerable, witty, and just as new to the Victorian high life as I was. To me, she was meant for fist fights, undercover work as a reluctant spy or the hero who found out someone else’s dark secrets. But it didn’t happen. She learned to enjoy the glamor of society, fell in love and got married in the end. The story flatlined as far as she was concerned. When I was done with the book, I was fuming. Why didn’t someone at least hit her over the head and knock her out for half a chapter? There was so much wasted potential here.
Then something else came to mind. The author probably didn’t realize he was letting me down. He had created a beautiful and fascinating character and treated her just the same way he treated most of his characters. He had her overcome her struggles with the help of some good friends and then he gave her a happy ending.
As a writer, this bothers me. How do I know I’m not making the same mistakes? It’s not an easy problem to tackle. There’s only one way I’ve found to face it, and it’s a challenge. Find some stories you like. Books, TV shows, whatever makes you think, Wow, this is so awesome! I want to have written this! Then write it. Copy it; type it up. And then write some fan fiction in the same universe with the same characters.
If your experience is anything like mine was, you’ll quickly find some moments of tension. You’ll have an idea for a terrific problem or situation, but you’ll avoid writing it because it seems like it might be too much. Would you dare to do something so terrible to someone else’s characters?
No, I’m not writing in favor of torture porn, though sometimes it almost feels like it. Whatever you write will be muted before the readers. Good things won’t feel as good, and problems won’t feel as dire. You need to amp up the tension, maximize it. If you’re torn about whether one course of plot action is too dramatic for your story, too uncomfortable, go for it. You might find a vein of gold in your story, and you’ll certainly engage your readers on a much higher scale than before. And guess what? If it really is too much, you can go back and change it later. But take risks. Choose the more dangerous paths. You never know what could come out and how your story might be improved by it!