Under Pressure

Putting our characters under pressure is what we writers do. Their reactions to that pressure creates plot and pushes them to change. So I started thinking about how people react to pressure.

I react to stress in two distinct ways: 1) I clean/organize and/or 2) I buy stuff.

I must not have had a stressful childhood, judging by the massive mess that was my room back then. These days when I am feeling overwhelmed, scattered, and out-of-control, I tend to clean and/or organize things. Why? Because it gives me a sense of control and it gives me instant gratification. After making a messy desk clean, things feel much calmer—I’ve accomplished something!

I hate to shop, so #2 might surprise people who know me. I don’t buy stuff whenever I am under stress—it is particular to grief. When I have experienced grief, I find that I buy stuff—usually more expensive stuff. I do not mean out-of-control spending, but simply talking myself into buying something slightly more expensive than I normally would. I think the buying is my version of “comfort food”—an indulgence in a time of pain. The object I buy is also real, tangible. Something physical I can hold onto in a time of loss.

These are two very specific reactions to very particular stresses. They are particular to me. What specific stress reactions do your characters have? Do they whistle? Scream? Cry? Run away? Every one of your unique characters will react in their own way to the same stressor. This is another way you can differentiate your characters and add depth to them.

How do you react to stress? What unique stress tics have you given your characters?

Parallel Lives

Things have happened lately that have made me very aware of the parallel lives we humans live. So often we present one face to the world—confident or happy or calm—while inside we are dealing with emotions or events that have left us scared or sad or frantic. Even in this age where people habitually over-share, we all carry secrets we hide from most people.

This sharp contrast has made me realize two things: 1) We should never be hasty in judging someone, for we don’t know what is happening behind their smile, and 2) even the most honest person wears a façade.

This façade is not being dishonest or “fake.” Sometimes your real feelings are not appropriate to the situation or to the people you are currently with. For instance, a client meeting is not the place to sob and rant about a breakup. Also, the façade serves a protective purpose, hiding our vulnerability from people who would use those feelings to harm or manipulate us.

This is not only a good life lesson, but a good writing lesson. Our characters will be much deeper and more interesting if they live the parallel lives we real people do every day. Have a character that has to smile all day as a customer service worker? What if that character is dealing with an illness or death in the family? Or if your worker ends up serving the man she recognizes as the man who murdered her friend? Or the ex-boyfriend she still loves shows up with his girlfriend?

These parallel lives make your character and scene more interesting because it increases conflict and is the very definition of tension. And as most editors will tell you, you virtually cannot have too much tension in your book. Tension drives the reader to keep turning the pages—and who doesn’t want to write a page-turner?

So next time you want to spice up a scene or a character, think about the hidden emotional life going on inside your character at that moment.

And next time you’re annoyed by the behavior of someone in the real world, give them the benefit of the doubt—things may not be what they seem.

Have you made use of parallel lives in your work?

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