Watch Out! Getting Your Characters Under Pressure

There are many components to successful stories. Voice, language, and story structure are three examples. However, there are certain aspects that make stories.

Probably fundamentally is the concept that fiction is characters under pressure. Without pressure there would be no story.

Let’s take a look at reality for a moment. In reality, the average person likes living in a comfort zone, where he can minimize risk. And when he does take risks, most times they’re calculated risks. For example, if you decide to go skydiving, you’re going to take classes first or do a buddy dive, where you’re strapped to an expert skydiver. You’re not going to say, “Alright, strap a parachute on me and let’s do this!” At least, not your first time out.

Well, fictional characters like being in comfort zones too. It’s our job as writers to force them out of their comfort zones. We apply the pressure. Because, when characters are under pressure, they reveal who they truly are.

The same applies in real life. When people are under pressure, they don’t have time to pick and choose what and how they want to show themselves to the world. They only have time to react.

Also, pressure makes characters compelling.

There are two types of pressure:

  • External Pressure. External pressure is outside pressure that’s placed on the character. So, if Johnny lost his job and now can’t afford rent, that’s external pressure. Johnny’s forced into a situation where he’s got to make quick decisions, or else he’ll be out on the streets, or will have a landlord threatening him with legal action. Add to that his girlfriend ending up being pregnant, and since she’s Roman Catholic, she devoutly believes she must be married before she gives birth…now Johnny’s really under pressure.
  • Internal Pressure. Internal pressure is pressure from within. It’s pressure you put on yourself. You know doing something will make you uncomfortable, but you do it anyway because you believe the payoff outweighs the anxiety you’ll experience. Love is a great example of this. Sally meets Tommy. Sally really likes Tommy, but she’s afraid of falling in love. Her parents fell in love and got married. Then, they had a very ugly divorce, where her dad ending up trying to poison her mom. Sally doesn’t want to be that vulnerable. Ever. But she’s always wanted to be in love, so she forces herself to go for it because, even though she’s terrified of opening up, she believes love is worth it.

External and internal pressure are both needed in a story. Using them at different times will add to your story, and combining them, letting them complicate each other, will up the ante.

Are you putting enough pressure on your characters?

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