You Want To Stress Your Character?

It’s really easy. Trust me on this. I’ve had the kind of week which really illustrates how easy it is to stress someone to the level where they’re not thinking any more, just reacting and trying to hold together until things settle. You don’t even need to do anything drastic.

In my case, a combination of factors meant that I ran out of the medication I need to stay awake (Narcolepsy, for what it’s worth, sucks). That turned the last week into an exercise of watching the mail in a near-obsessive fashion when I wasn’t just trying to stay awake. The world could have ended and I probably wouldn’t have noticed.

Now, what does your character need? What would drop your character into survival mode where the only thing that they can focus on is making it past the next crisis? Once you’ve figured out what it is, do it.

You can play it for laughs, like Pratchett did with the caffeine-obsessed vampire in Monstrous Regiment. Or you can be serious. Either way, you’ve got a character who’s not at their best, and who’s desperate for that one thing they know is going to fix it.

That character is going to do everything in their power to try to get what they need, which is where the author comes in – stressing the character even more by making sure the timing isn’t quite right or things just don’t work and they don’t get what they need. Or – preferably – the character’s impaired state causes them to do things wrong which winds up taking them further from their goal instead of winning them what they’re after.

Eventually, of course, your character either gets what they’re chasing (sweet, sweet caffeine) or they discover they can live without it (oh, look! Character growth).

Or in my case, the medication finally arrives in the mail.

43 comments

    1. Damn, just realized how I could stress a character out! THANK YOU! (no, not related to the vampire or your situation).
      *runs off to WIP wiki to scribble notes for later*

    2. Yes, actually, with a side of “make it believable and don’t just drop mountains on them out of nowhere”.

  1. The world could have ended and I probably wouldn’t have noticed.

    * $CHARACTER falls asleep (or whatever).
    * World ends.
    * $CHARACTER wakes up (or whatever).
    * $CHARACTER gets on with things.
    * After a while, $CHARACTER notices something is amiss, and…

    1. That’s basically the setup for “The Walking Dead”. Cop gets shot in the line of duty, wakes from his coma to find the zombie apocalypse happened while he was out.

  2. I find the quasi-mythical Five Ws and an H to be a good guide.

    Who wants something?
    What do they want?
    Where do they want it?
    When do they want it?
    Why can’t they have it?
    How do they try to get around that?

    As I start answering those questions (repeatedly), I start finding story.

    1. That sounds remarkably like my testing triage process.

      What is happening?
      Who is it happening?
      Where is it happening?
      When is it happening?
      Why is it happening?
      How does it happen?

      Which is a somewhat more generic version of the 5 Ws + H principle.

    2. Who are you?

      What do you want?

      Where are you going?

      Whom do you trust, and whom do you serve?

  3. Caffeine. I was irked about breakfast. My caffination option vanished. Headache began just as reached destination and discovered that the book was a “wee bit” in error about things. Et cetera.

    1. In my case caffeine is just part of the flavor. It does not wake me up even a little bit.

  4. There’s sort of an in-joke in my book where events conspire to keep my protagonist from getting fed. Off to get food—interruption. Trying again—the next diversion. It wasn’t a very long time, all told—no more than a day, and you’re only dealing with the second half—but it was funny to me since we get the hangries in my family.

    1. Heh. That kind of thing can add quite a bit of tension or humor, depending on how you play it.

      1. It was an in-joke because it’s downplayed and you’ll only really notice if you’re paying attention. I mentioned it once or twice, but it’s only if you add up all the distractions that you’ll realize that she was diverted from food for hours.

  5. Character: I need money.
    World: You can’t have money without a job.
    Character: OK. then I need a job.
    World: You can’t get a job until you get some experience or some training
    Character: OK, I need some experience or training.
    World: You can’t get experience without a job or training without money.
    Character: AAAARRGGHHH!

      1. Oh, I can think of *lots* more ways that that to stress characters. Turning them into stories that people want to read…that’s an art I haven’t practiced nearly enough.

        1. If you want stress, take a forty-eight hour incubation stomach bug with a two day recovery time once symptoms start, and give it to a family of ten. Three kids recovered, two currently ill . . .

          My point being, don’t miss the potential of the tiniest members of the biosphere to add stress, throw people into auto-pilot reactions that exacerbate problems instead of fixing them, and offer potential for sleep deprivation without chronic conditions or even illness on the part of the sleep deprived. (Yes, I was up nearly all night with toddler. If this has limited coherency, that’s why.)

          1. Yes, that’s stress. To make it truly evil, it would be norovirus, as in “bleach the world.”

            And I sympathize deeply, even with a family only half the size.

    1. The problem with that one is I’ve been there, often, and I don’t want to read about it.

      Character: Demons are coming, and I’m low on ammunition.
      World: Good thing you saved up all those wheel weights, Character.

      That I want to read about.

      1. Character: What do you mean, saved them up??? WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME THAT BEFORE?!!

        1. We previously foreshadow Character’s monthly trip to the wrecking yard, scrounging weights off old cars. Nobody understands why he does it, they all think he’s cracked.

          He’s the only guy who wondered, “Gee, what would happen if one a’ them there deeeemons escaped one afternoon?”

          I like stories where that guy wins. I’m not fond of grey goo where that guy dies anyway, and besides he’s a creeper.

          1. If you want a bunch of lead in a hurry and don’t mind some copper contamination, there’s also cleaning out the bullet trap at the range…

            I knew an aircraft mechanic who did that, then melted down the results into small ingots about the size of a popsicle, and larger ingots about the size of.. well, pretty much the size of an ice cube tray. Placed on a board, they worked perfectly to weight down aircraft with the engines removed for maintenance.

      2. And then he finds that most of his stash is crummy zinc or painted sintered iron instead of real lead…

      1. A trap, to be sure, but I wouldn’t call it a kafkatrap until you add.
        World: Your real problem is that you’re lazy.

        1. Yeah, that’s when you write in an asteroid.

          World: I’m sorry!
          Character: Too late, World.

  6. I hit this problem in A Diabolical Bargain, where the hero had to, early in the book, not go for help. He was healing from injuries, exhausted, enormously stressed, and keenly aware that if he went for help, there was a pile of evidence pointing to him, not the actual culprit, as the guilty one, if they didn’t believe him.

    Once he did, however, he was haunted by the knowledge that going for help would raise serious questions about why he had not done so earlier, and every time he didn’t, the length of time he had to account for was longer.

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