Is This The Best You Can Do?

I’m not a particularly clumsy person. But sometimes when I’m thinking, I convince myself my body is just my brain and there’s no need to watch where I’m going or pay attention to my surroundings.

That happened yesterday, and I smacked my elbow on the corner of my upstairs hall. It hurt so bad I sat down there on the floor and gave up all hope of life.

I grew up a farm girl. I’ve nearly been killed in several accidents, I’ve stabbed my hand on sharp wire and lost a lot of blood, I’ve been bitten by dogs, been stung by hornets when they flew up my jacket sleeve, and been chased by snakes in the pond. I’m no weakling. And yet, sitting there in the hall clutching my elbow, it occurred to me that this is what I expect my characters to handle, except much more.

I expect them to take it, process it, handle it, and still win. I take everything away from them– friendships, family, health, resources. I cause them pain (for good reasons, I have to remind myself) and just when they get it handled and get back up, I knock them down again.

In trying to be a good writer, I have to test my characters. I have to throw everything at them, push them to change and become active and either fall or rise. The whole process of telling the story is me asking them, “Is this the best you can do?” I expect the best from my characters. Is this the best fight you can put up, the sharpest thinking you can do, the greatest love you can give, the hardest you can try?

When we expect so much from our characters, we’d better not be expecting less of ourselves. As a writer, are you doing your story justice? In the time I’ve spent editing and writing (not nearly enough) I’ve started to realize the humble writers, the ones who are willing to go back to the drawing board and read books on writing craft and take the harsh critiques, are the ones who make it.

When you’re asking yourself if you’re ready to query, if you’re done with edits, if you need to change this or that, here’s the question to ask: Is this the best you can do? We ask for the best, the most, the hardest things, from our characters. Give your writing your best, and keep asking yourself, “Can I do better? Is this all I’ve got? Is this the best I can do?”

Find the answers to those questions, chase them down, settle for nothing less, and you’ll become a good writer.

Destroying Your Character’s Comfort Zone: Pixar #6

I hope you all had a great Easter! After a one-day break for the holiday, we’re back to discussing Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling. Today rule 6 is up:

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

Pushing your characters out of their comfort zones is a key concept in developing compelling conflict. If your characters are good at everything they’re doing and don’t have to push themselves, we don’t wait around to see if they’ll get the job done. We know they will. When the conflict challenges the main character, we see character development happening all over the place. So, yes, of course we want to throw something at them that challenges their abilities.

But here’s the twist, and really, the most important part: don’t just give them something HARDER, challenge them with something completely opposite of what they’re comfortable with. The pro assassin who has his toughest case yet might be interesting, but it’s not as gripping as it could be. What does Katniss not have time for? Impractical things. Where does she have to go? The Capitol– the height of impracticality. She doesn’t have time for entertainment and doesn’t understand people who do, but yet she has to not only participate in but BE entertainment. Even when her life and Peeta’s are at stake, she still has to be good entertainment, or they won’t get help when they need it. Seeing Katniss struggle (remember post 1 on character struggle?) with things that directly conflict with her ethics, in an area she can barely understand, having to develop skills she has never used before, is a gold mine situation for character development. How she reacts tells the audience a great deal about her motivation, intelligence, resourcefulness, insecurities, and compassion. It takes every bit of who she is to survive.

And that’s key to this whole rule. Gripping conflict should push your characters to the limits, especially in their weak areas, because when it does, we find out who they really are. When you do that, characters have to change. They become deeper, more complex, more relatable, more memorable, and even more compelling.

Don’t forget to check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me!

Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,

Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,

Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and lit agency intern,

and Regina Castillo, a dedicated reader, writer, and blogger.

As always, thanks for reading!