Updated: Dec 6, 2022
When I was three years old, I almost drowned.
It would’ve been an ironic death – something horrifying marring a happy scene.
I barely remember it. But I can still see the joy of the bright water, public-pool blue; the yellow-green of the parched Amarillo summer grass; my mom at the pool’s edge, reading.
I was wearing an innertube and somehow flipped over. The device purposed to keep my head above water was holding me under.
I don’t know what happened next. Someone jumped in or swam over and righted me, I guess. They must’ve lifted me out of the water, because the next thing I knew, I was in my mom’s arms, indulging in a delicious childhood bawling – completely justified and meriting compassion.
And then – my mom wrapping me in a sun-warmed towel, holding me at the side of the pool until I fell asleep. To this day, I recall that as the best nap of my life.
How long can a child go without breathing? Not long. (Though I’m refusing to google that one.) I did once learn from a nurse that a small child can drown in a teaspoon of water. And I recently horrified myself by reading that we mortals have merely two minutes to live. But every time we take a breath, the clock restarts.
So, lots of threats here – lack of oxygen; the rampaging passage of time; the physics of how easily water might slip into the lungs of an upside-down, swamped girl.
This situation was a real problem.
In writing, we’re taught to give our characters problems. It’s how their natures, their personalities, their grit is revealed, right? Create a problematic a scenario, then set them to act and see what they do.
The task, though, isn't nearly as easy as it seems…
The first character I ever created came to me with a built-in story problem – or so I thought. Having suffered the death of her husband, she just couldn’t move forward. Opportunities came her way, and she went – no, I can’t; she went – I won’t, she went - it’s too difficult, no.
I created a half dozen choices for her: this opportunity or that… this distasteful option or that… this unwise course or a slightly better one with a catch. For various interesting reasons, she made her choices and meandered along. Her choices were always rooted in her basic problem – emotional paralysis.
I offered her a final choice – a final opportunity for progression and recovery. For interesting reasons, she decided that this time was different. She took the bait and said, “yes.” She recovered. She moved on. I called her “transformed.”
But – it just took a decision, a mere changing of mind, for her to go from immobilized to thriving. My character did not have a real story problem.
She had what I term a story non-problem. I stepped into this trap regularly as a new writer, and seven years into the study of craft, I still stumble into it from time to time. I also see it crop up in the work of new writers and in weak published books.
A story non-problem is an issue that can be solved with little to no work on the character’s part. She changes because she decides to change. She moves forward because she wakes up one day and feels somewhat different. She walks into rescue. She finally takes steps that the reader has been shouting at her to take.
If a reader can say of a character – “Why doesn’t she just tell him how she feels?” And the character really could just tell him – were it not for a niggling inner unwillingness – we’ve got a story non-problem.
If a reader can see ten ways out that the character refuses to recognize or simply won’t act on, we have a story non-problem.
As a reader, I find I can’t attach to characters with non-problems. There tends to be a lot of time wasting, a lot of meandering from one place to the next while the cloud of the non-problem looms over the character.
There’s a good reason, though, that it took me a while to see a story non-problem for what it was. As my character meandered through her non-problems, I felt her disquiet. I cried for her emotional paralysis. I felt her grieving. It seemed like a real problem. My excellent writing teacher, Tim Storm, helped me out of this eddy by gently pointing out that: grief isn’t interesting.
I know - it seems interesting. If you have a friend grieving, you'd do anything to help. If you yourself were / are grieving, it's often all one can think about. After months of arguing with Tim, though, I realized he was right. I saw what he meant.
Grief warrants compassion, yes. As the writer, I'm holding a character near to my psyche, so her grief seems interesting. It feels like my own.
But readers come at the character from stronger distances, and they might find themselves simply frustrated with her. If a reader tolerates any meandering through story non-problems, it’s only because they’re waiting for real story problems. Real problems, the book must deliver.
A murderous witch hunting down a child who holds the secret to her defeat…
A military tyrant killing and maiming for profit…
An innertube keeping a child underwater…
Nowadays when I brainstorm story problems, I think of that innertube that was nearly the means of my own death. I ask myself:
· Is this problem strong enough to keep the character down?
· Is tremendous effort necessary to address it?
· Does it strengthen my character’s desire for relief?
· How might it threaten my character on multiple fronts?
· Will it demand solutions for which my character must struggle to discover?
· When the character overcomes this, will they be authentically changed?
My drowning metaphor isn’t a perfect 1:1 correlation with a story problem because I was rescued. But when a real story problem presents itself, the character must want to solve it as strongly as I wanted air. They ought to feel the power of the crisis. And as they right themselves, they must tap into parts of themselves and their world, as yet dormant or unknown.
In creating story problems, I aim for this:
· The story problem must be so daunting that by all counts, the character should fail.
· The final transformation should be believable and yet near-miraculous.
· The character’s wins must come from forging on when they could have given up.
And death – of some sort – is always what’s at stake.
So lay two choices before your character – 1) death, and 2) the impossible. Now let them go forth. Let them show you what it takes to render a miracle.