One of my mentors once told me the true essence of a story isn’t about the character — it’s about the conflict. When we pick up a book the last thing we really want to read about is what he called “Happy People in Happy Land” because as much as we complain about the hardship in our own lives we think that a character who faces no challenges is absolutely boring.
My mentor went on to tell me that when writing my goal is to run my protagonist up a tree in the middle of a forest fire and strand him on a branch that is about to break, plummeting him into a pack of ravenous wolves below. At the time I chuckled to myself. I didn’t realize yet that I was as hesitant to throw my character into that type of danger as I was to step into the fire myself. After all, life isn’t really like that…right?
Lately my life has resembled the above scenario far more than I care to admit. It seems that every time I come close to breaking free from one potential catastrophe I land right smack dab into the middle of another. That there tends to be only the briefest glimpse of peace and safety in between makes the new challenge even harder to face. I’ve found myself asking the oldest cliché in the book: Why?
It’s the question every character finds themselves asking at the end of the first act of a story. Why me? Why here? Why now? It’s also the point in which they make the first in the series of critical choices: Stay and ignore the problem hoping it disappears, thus ending the story before it begins. Or tackle the issue head-on and accept whatever changes and challenges come with it. It’s those who chose the latter we remember.
One of my all-time favorite characters is Frodo Baggins’ best friend Samwise Gamgee. Of all the characters in the Fellowship he was the only one who never wanted an adventure. He would have been content to live out his days tending his garden in the Shire. Instead he chose the path of adversity and it was his choice to stick by Frodo’s side no matter what the cost that resulted in the final destruction of the Ring of Power and the ultimate fall of Sauron.
What I love the most about Sam is that despite everything that happened to him he never lost sight of his goal: To return to the Shire at Frodo’s side. Whether it’s in my personal life or as a writer, I’ve discovered I face the same decision. And as much as it shocks me to type this, I couldn’t live as a Happy Person in Happy Land. Without these struggles I’d see no growth. Without these challenges I’d have no way of knowing how far I can really go. And without these burdens I’d never know just how wonderful it is to discover I don’t have to carry them alone.
There’s one other thing my mentor joined in with others to drill into me: Write what you know. Thanks to the broken branch above the wolves in the middle of a forest fire, that list just got a little longer.