Fiction writers feel deeply. We often have an intense emotional landscape, are highly observant, and tend to be introverts. We may be somewhat comfortable on the stage but hate cocktail parties and talking on the phone is the worst. We like people, but socializing takes energy from us and we need a lot of time alone in order to recharge. So, we prefer to work alone and get overwhelmed by too much socializing or even too much noise and light. We’re wired a little differently.
And, yes, we’re anxious sorts. We can be worriers, afraid of, well, just about everything. We may be born this way, but our occupation can make our anxiety so much worse. Think about it: if we do our job, we spend our days coming up with the worst possible things that can happen to our characters. We spend our days catastrophizing.
These are vast generalizations, of course, and I do speak for myself. But after nearly twenty-five years of teaching and coaching other writers, I’ve got to say that this cliché of the writer personality type fits a great many of us. And, in fact, these are good traits for writers to have. We are keen observers and often have great empathy and understanding of others and the world around us. We use these talents and that intense emotional landscape to sculpt our fictional characters and worlds.
The thing is, the personality traits that make us good writers can also stop us from developing our protagonist’s conflict, or even writing at all.
Writers tend to avoid conflict on the page for the same reasons we avoid it in real life: facing conflict directly makes us more than uncomfortable. It can wrench us apart.
We’ll do anything to avoid our character’s conflict, holding it at a comfortable arm’s length (in the past) in flashbacks or letters, or allowing our protagonist to walk out of the room or go on a trip, leaving the conflict behind. At other times, our protagonist talks to a side character about their problem, rather than facing their antagonist directly in what would be a much more powerful scene. Or our protagonists ruminate and fret over their problem alone, as we do, rather than directly engaging with their problem or the antagonist. We may have another character swoop in to save the day, not allowing our protagonist to find solutions to their own problems, to be active as, again, that would mean our protagonist would have to face their conflict head on. Or we might get our protagonist into trouble, only to resolve the issue too soon, or say that everything is okay after all, that really, it wasn’t the protagonist’s fault. In short, we don’t allow the protagonist to get themselves in real trouble.
So, why do we protect our protagonists from their conflict? Because putting the protagonist directly into his or her conflict, and writing scene that unravels in the now, in real time in front of the reader, forces us empathic, fearful, nervous wreck writers to experience that conflict first-hand, as if it were our own. And, of course, sometimes it is if we are writing from real life inspirations. We’ll do anything to avoid experiencing those intense emotions, emotions that can overwhelm us. So, we avoid writing the scene we need to write. Or we avoid putting our protagonists at the center of their conflicts. We allow them to run away, or wander or ruminate alone instead, as we do.
The result: the passive protagonist, who observes and reports on the conflicts of others, but is not fully engaged in her own. The story falls flat; narrative drive doesn’t get up and running.
The solution is to rethink situation so that we are putting the protagonist right into the centre, the heart of their conflict, and allow that conflict to play out fully in scene. But, of course, that’s easier said than done.
The main challenge we face as fiction writers is to overcome our own fears and allow our characters to fully engage with their conflicts on the page rather than avoiding them at every turn.
But as we take on this challenge, we need to take care of ourselves and make sure we have support around us because in writing and rewriting those difficult, conflict-filled scenes, the empathic writer may well experience, feel, what the protagonist experiences, over and over. Within the writing process, we are there, in the scene, and we are there again each time we revisit the scene as we rewrite. It’s for this reason, and others, that I believe our lovely, introverted, empathic, emotionally intense, and anxious writers are also very brave and daring souls.