The short answer: Stop doing it.
The long answer…
There’s such a thing as loving your characters too much. Like a mother, you want to protect them and stroke their hair and tell them they’re special, but they’re not and if you spoil them, they’ll turn out to be rotten and they’ll kick their feet and whine when you try to make them do something other than get their own way.
You can avoid this by taking elements from the successful set up you have, and removing them to make it a bit less successful.
Benjamin, Susie and Lu are a great team. They go on a camping trip in the woods. Benjamin is awesome with directions; he’s the one who remembers all the twists and turns they take without fail (but he’s scared of the dark). Susie brought lots of provisions - snacks, water, cooking implements - you name it, she has it. So long as she has the tools, she can do anything! Finally, Lu is the only one who can drive the car they left at the entrance; she deals with the travel, her friends do the rest. So long as they stick together, everything will go swimmingly!
Instead of watching Benjamin, Lu and Susie enjoying themselves and walking through the woods all happy and stuff, you need to tear into the scene like a starving bear (post-hibernation), and get ripping off some limbs.
Separate Benjamin, Susie and Lu so far away from each other that they can’t hear each other scream. Make Susie forage for her food; wrapped energy bars don’t grow on trees here. Chase Benjamin so deep into the forest (at NIGHT) that he can’t keep himself together long enough to remember which way he came. If Benjamin or Susie find their way back to the car, you want to make sure Lu isn’t around to drive it away for them. Make things more hysterical by leaving nothing but a set of track marks in the dirt for them to crawl over to in a desperate bid to escape. If Lu gets to the car, then she’s either lost her keys or the bloody thing won’t start.
Be ruthless. Don’t cuddle your characters or guide them. Rip the rug from under their feet. Nothing should be easy, nothing should be convenient. The only convenience you want in your story is Benjamin conveniently running into a huge hole in the ground and being unable to climb back out of it whilst Susie and Lu hold each other and cry about how much they need his impressive directional skills.
The basic techniques for this kind of shit-fuck-uppery are:
Your Characters Should Have Conflicting Goals
Fred needs to look for a magic key - luckily that morning, he stumbled across a clue for it. If only he could make it from one end of the realm to the other… oh! Lo and behold, a batch of merry adventurers freshly served outside of the tavern, who happen to be vaguely going in the same direction as Fred. Instant companions!
Boring. Why are the adventurers going in that direction? Who are they? Do they know about Fred’s key quest? What do they think about it? Would they all want him to go forth and jam this key into some nondescript lock, thus changing the world forever? If so, why? If not, why not? Do they even like Fred?
People don’t do things for nothing. Even the nicest person in the world has an agenda, has desires and wants and beliefs. Avoid things becoming convenient for your protagonist by causing drama between them and the other characters. They can’t get along all of the time.
Your Character Should Never Get What They Expect
It said so on the telegram: He’d be waiting on the bridge after midnight, with some very important information for Main Character. Simple.
Unless the bridge doesn’t exist. Unless the bridge explodes. Unless the guy waiting is not actually the guy. Lull your protagonist into a false sense of security. Let them believe it’s going to be a cake walk, and then surprise them by pulling a Portal and taking away the cake.
Your Character Should Have To Do Things They Hate
Jo loves chocolate. She would happily swim in a river of chocolate. Luckily for her, the only thing stopping her from saving the world is - you guessed it - a river of chocolate.
Although Jo, like most people, would probably loathe swimming through a river of shit.
That’s what your story is essentially going to be. Your character swimming upstream in every situation they don’t want to be in. It’s especially good when your character has to do something they’re terrified of doing. You can always make a situation worse by throwing in a phobic object or idea which they then have to force themselves to overcome, lest they perish or lose.
Your Character Should Lose - Or Risk Losing - Everything They Know and Love
The beginning of the story generally sets the scene, showing us the status quo. Even if it’s a really shitty status quo, there are things in it that the character wouldn’t want to change if all of the shitty things suddenly became non-shitty. Basically, your protagonist wants their cake and they also want to eat it too. It’s your job to show them that the world just doesn’t work like that.
If you inspire change in your story, you need some characters (or other force) to resist it. You need them to protest it and fight for their kingdom to remain the same as much as you have your protagonist fighting for it to be different. Unfortunately, as the gears spin, beloved pets, valuables, friends and family members might get caught between the interlocking projections.
Even if your character’s greatest love is an object or an idea, you should rip it out of their grasp and stomp on it right before their eyes.
The general rule of thumb is: If something is going right, make it go wrong. You can have periods in your work where something is actually on track for a change. Your characters are allowed brief moments of respite and happiness, or the chance to rekindle some of the dead, ashen hope lying at the very bottom of their souls. Just make sure it doesn’t last too long. Make sure you’re prepared to hurt them and upset them as much as you’re possibly able. This will keep the drama churning in the story and it will keep your readers engaged. They want to see your protagonist fighting with their hands tied behind their back, not powering their way through from the beginning to the end with a jump in their step.
It also helps if your protagonist is the one to topple the perfectly aligned domino utopia that is their everyday life. Sure, it looks fun at first, until they remember the mess that’ll need cleaning up after. So let them scurry and panic, and follow them as they desperately try to stop the dominoes from falling the whole way along. You know they can’t do it, the reader knows they probably can’t do it, but we all want to see them try and we all want to see how they adapt to cope with the end result.
This is how you get out of the habit. You need to stop loving your characters so much, and let them suffer a bit. It’s hard and you might cry and you’ll most likely feel like an awful person, but it’s for the greater good of the story and you’ll thank yourself for it in the end. There’s no excuse for making things too easy for your characters. It’s time to make them work for their bread and butter, as we all have to do in life.
I hope this helps…
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