Keith Stuart: Making Life Difficult for your Character

Keith Stuart: Making Life Difficult for your Character

The problem is, this structure often involves being really nasty to your characters – you know, those people you created out of your imagination and sort of grow to love. You can’t have a story in which your hero gets everything right and doesn’t ever disappoint herself or others – it’s just not compelling. Sometimes, you need to make them do awful stupid things. You need them to fail. We all love the classic triumph over adversity, and you can’t have the former without the latter.

There’s one scene in A Boy Made of Blocks that sums this up for me. About halfway through the book lead character Alex takes his autistic son Sam to a fancy-dress party. We know this is going to be difficult, but we also know that Alex has been making some progress in learning how to communicate with his boy – they are building a relationship. Sam attends the party as a creeper, one of the monsters from the game Minecraft that they’ve been playing together. This kind of symbolises Sam’s entry into that shared world.

But the party – which takes place at the home of Alex’s friends Matt and Clare – goes wrong. Something happens that terrifies Sam enough that he runs away and locks himself in the bathroom. Alex is outside the door and he can hear Sam smashing the place up – he has to find the ability to calm his son down.

This is how I originally wrote the scene:

This time it’s up to me.

    “Sam,” I say. “It’s okay. I know you were scared by the noise – that’s fine. I understand. I don’t like loud noises either – I don’t like bangs or crashes. I get frightened too. Hey, once when I was little, I remember one firework night – I was in bed and suddenly there was a massive bang and a flash, right outside my bedroom. It was just a firework of course, but it sounded like an explosion. I was so scared that I jumped out of bed and started crying. I was so upset that my brother George came in, and he switched on the lamp, then said ‘Have you still got all your fingers and toes? Let’s count them’, so we counted my fingers and he said ‘ah good, ten fingers that’s all of them. Now count your toes’, so I counted them, and he said ‘ten again? perfect! That is the correct amount of toes’. I remember that I got back into bed and he said, ‘Alex, if you hear another massive bang tonight, just count your fingers and toes, if you still have ten of each, everything is okay’. And it was. So Sam, can you just do this for me, can you count your fingers?”

    I listen in at the door, the crying has stopped, at first I think he’s ignoring me, or just hasn’t heard. But I hear a whisper, very dull, very low. But I hear it.

    “One, two, three, four…”

    As he counts, his voice gets a little stronger, until at last he exclaims, “ten!”

    “Ah good, that is the right amount. Now your toes – take off your creeper feet.”

    A short silence. Clare is behind me – her slightly terrifying green face radiates concern.

    “Ten,” shouts Sam.

    “That’s it! Everything is fine. Oh, but maybe I should check, just to be sure. If you open the door, I’ll just count them all again.”

    Silence. I tense up. There’s always the chance this is just the calm before meltdown part two – it has happened in the past; a momentary distraction before another onslaught. But then I hear some fumbling at bolt lock and it scrapes slowly back.

“Ten fingers, ten toes,” I say. “So everything is alright. Everything is alright.”

    He steps forward and puts his clunky cardboard arms around me.

I take Sam’s hand.

    “Come on son, let’s get you home.”

    “It was the noise,” he says softly. “It was the noise.”

The problem is, it was too early in the narrative for Alex to be so calm, measured and capable – he hadn’t earned it yet; there were still more obstacles to overcome. I desperately wanted Alex to get it right, but I had to understand that in structural terms this was too early, too easy, too convenient.

In the final text, Alex gets it wrong. He becomes angry and frustrated and manages to wind Sam up even more. It’s up to Clare to calm Sam down, by offering him the chance to play on her iPad. In some ways this is a symbolic lesson: Alex learns that the intervention of an interesting game or object can diffuse a situation – this will prove important later on. But crucially, it’s a lesson he has to learn the hard way.

In books and movies, characters only become realistic and convincing when they surprise us or make mistakes – that’s how we know they’re human; that’s how we know they’re like us. If your character doesn’t make one surprising decision throughout the course of a story, something is wrong. Right now, some of the best character studies are playing out in long-form television – if you watch a series like Game of Thrones, The Wire or Walking Dead, you see characters that you love making terrible errors, or really weird decisions. This can be frustrating, but in the end, it’s what makes us love them and worry about them.

I love Alex, but he can be a complete idiot – in fact he HAS to be a complete idiot at first, because the novel is about learning. In writing then, you’re not being cruel to be kind, you’re being cruel to be interesting. Sometimes, that’s a tough lesson to learn.