I’m currently working on a new draft of The Inhabitors based on some feedback I’ve gotten recently and a thorough breakdown of each scene. What I’ve decided to do is to add some problems and flaws to the characters that weren’t apparent before. I’m doing this to up the stakes (which I’ve had problems with in the past), add a bit more complexity to the characters (my protagonist, specifically, could use a bit more of an arc), and deepen the drama. I’m excited about where this might go, but am a bit weary about taking it too far.
I think there’s a fine line that can be hard to navigate when piling on problems for characters to deal with. In our everyday lives we deal with several things regularly, some big problems (chronic unemployment, for instance) and some smaller ones (my damned Blu-Ray player won’t play Blu-Rays anymore), but we can’t bring all of that into our story.
I know, that sounds weird. One of the basic tenets of drama is that more problems equals greater conflict. But as I’ve thought about it the reason too many character problems becomes an issue is actually based in a fairly logical story phenomenon; Too much to follow easily. Audiences, readers, etc. only need so much explanation to believe in a character doing something. Overkill, even if it’s somewhat purposeful, insults their intelligence and slows down the story. With most stories (and there are always exceptions) we are trying to give the audience the gist of what’s going on so they understand the story. We never spend too much time on one thing unless it’s important to the story/character at the heart of the story. To focus on an insane amount of problems, most of which would probably, by necessity, be relatively small, detracts from the overall conflict.
Spider-Man is probably the poster-boy for a character with a lot of problems. He regularly struggles with relationships, secrets, school, money, and super-powered villains that are trying to kill him and those he loves. What he doesn’t struggle with is an infestation of cockroaches. He doesn’t struggle finding people to help him move. Those are legitimate problems we have everyday. Why shouldn’t he struggle with those?
Because they’re relatively small problems of little importance to the story, and of little interest to the audience. Not only that, but most of Spider-Man’s problems are related to one another and, therefore, related to the story at hand. He is a super-hero, so he’s already putting stress on his personal and professional life by needing to save the day at a moment’s notice. His secrets all stem from the fact that he needs to keep his identity from both the people he cares about and the villains that would hurt them. All of these problems feed into one another and inform his character.
There is also a balance that Spider-Man strikes. He has super-powered villains, but his own powers and intellect allow him to overcome them. He has to keep his identity a secret from the people he loves but they love him and support him regardless of those secrets (usually). His life isn’t overwhelmed by his problems because he has enough inner-strength and support to balance it out.
In The Inhabitors I wanted my antagonist, Seth, to be beaten down by life so that it would be believable when he does immoral things. Seth was always going to be small and easy to target for bullies, but in an early draft I also made the decision to make him gay. Then I put him in a relationship that was on the outs in order to play into his self-esteem issues. But, to balance that, he has a best friend that doesn’t care he’s gay. He has a brother that represents all of the strength he lacks. Then, in this latest draft, I decided to have him watch his parents get a divorce. For the purposes of my story, I needed to tip the balance so that it makes sense when he self-destructs from an overwhelming sense of being unloved.
I struggled with knowing whether that was too much or not enough. I feel like to give him more problems would weigh down the story and give the reader/audience too much to digest, but to take away any problems would make him seem weaker than I intended and not be A.) convincing and B.) compelling. I won’t know whether or not I’ve wholly succeeded until after this draft, but I’m confident it won’t be a total failure.