Strength in Adversity

On the Knight post last week, Brainstormideas made a pretty good point. It was something I glossed over, because I was “doing the math in my head”, and forgot to really explain the reasoning.

@brainstormideas said: If you’re writing a novel, I think this would be an interesting conflict for the story. What with her challenges with training and fitting in. I would certainly read it. If it was too easy it wouldn’t be an interesting read.

This is absolutely true. Your stories need adversity. Without it, you don’t have a story. At the most basic level, creating adversity is trivial; all you need are elements that make your character’s life harder. That’s easy, hard part is balancing that against what your character can handle, to create a compelling narrative.

When you’re creating the adversity it doesn’t need to actually be a physical opponent. It can be an internal failing; hubris and addiction are both classic examples that can create compelling stories without requiring an external foe.

You, as the writer, control your story’s universe. When someone says, “you can’t do this in your world,” that isn’t strictly true. The hard and fast rules that govern the real world don’t apply. They survive as guidelines. “Paint within these boundaries unless you really know what you’re doing when you cross the line.” But, no one’s going to stop you.

You can throw overwhelming force at your character, and have them come through smiling and spouting witty one-liners. No one (outside of an editor) will stop you. But, that also doesn’t make your hero more awesome, or stronger.

Characters don’t suffer adversity the way real people do. Oh, most writers want them to be as close to authentic as they can get, but that’s not the same.

When a real person gets put through hell and comes out the other side, it’s on them. They suffered, endured, and moved beyond it to survive. When a character gets put through hell, they present the illusion of suffering and endurance, but it’s the author who has to move them beyond it. Push too far, and your audience’s suspension of disbelief will break, killing the credibility of everyone below.

Setting the stakes too high, and then wining through authorial fiat is really a loss. Your characters didn’t overcome the challenges you put in front of them; you cheated for them. And, in the process you created another Mary Sue.

Set those stakes to low and you’ll be left with a character that feels overpowered, even if they’re not. They become “giants in the playground,” and even under the best circumstances, your story won’t work unless your characters are picking on someone their own size.

Properly balancing adversity is not easy. You need to present obstacles that look insurmountable, that you can chip away a piece at a time. You need to make sure your characters are prepared for their opposition, without making it look like you tailored them to overcome this specific issue. You need to make it look like it’s still a continual threat even as you close in on your story’s climax.

If your protagonists aren’t supposed to overcome their adversity, just to survive, then you can actually push much stronger adversity at your character. Let me offer an example of how this works, using the Knight question:

If the goal is to present a character who staggers through her training, battered but defiant, then pushing her into training nine years after all of her peers started is actually fine. She’d be somewhere between a pariah and a tourist for her fellow knights. She’d never be fully accepted, but if that’s not the endgame, it doesn’t matter.

You can even do compelling things with her further down the line, where she has the formal recognition, but not the social connections that come with her position.

If your goal is for your hero to overcome, find acceptance among her peers, become a full member of her knightly order in good standing, then starting her nine years late is a bit too far. Just by being put into consideration by a patron, she’s already going to be marked out by anyone who got their “on their own merits,” even if they were really there because of their own backers.

Just being a teenager provides enough internal adversity to hang a story on it in any setting. You can look at the YA section of nearly any bookstore if you want an example of that.

Having her enter training late will add more tension, even if it’s just a couple years. But, asking her to play catch up for a decade of work is overkill, even if the purpose is just for her to never be fully accepted.

We’ve both see this a lot, even in published work, where the adversity is ramped into the stratosphere on the idea that it will make the characters more badass. When you’re setting up adversity, it is really easy to go too far. Creating a villain that is too competent, stacking the deck too hard against your character, and getting a situation where there is no way your hero can win. If you don’t want your hero to actually win, that’s great.

I don’t think The Empire Strikes Back would work nearly as well, if Luke and Leia cheated a win out of the end. The point isn’t victory, it’s surviving, and in the process, it’s compelling as hell.

But, by the same measure, if you do want your heroes to win, you need to balance your antagonists to allow it without just throwing the whole game.

-Starke

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *