Characters are like small children. Sometimes they just need to be held.
I recently read a novel that, on the surface, was nearly perfect. It had an action packed plot, a love triangle, and a feel good ending.
However, as I read, I noticed that every time a major conflict in the story would come up, the author would back off. She would briefly show the conflict, but then skip on to the next scene, leaving the reader to sort everything out.
It was almost as if the author knew she needed conflict, but was so uncomfortable with it she wanted to slip the conflict into the story and get out as soon as possible.
Melodrama vs. True Drama
Melodrama happens when you try to take more and more conflict and cram it into the story, hoping you can evoke an emotional reaction by the sheer number of conflicts.
Real drama, however, is created by sitting with the conflict, by turning it over to see its different perspectives, by fully embracing the conflict with your prose.
When I read American Pastoral, by Philip Roth, I remember being surprised that he spent several pages describing the protagonist's reaction after seing his prodigal daughter for the first time in years. It was a simple scene, but Roth made in heartbreaking by observed the internal conflict in his protagonist from every angle.
Characters are like small children. Sometimes they just need to be held. (Want to tweet that?)
Frigidity: When You Don't Care Enough
Are you willing embrace the conflict in your story, or are you trying to get it over with as soon as possible?
Are you sympathetic to your characters' emotions, or are you afraid to immerse yourself in their reactions?
John Gardner calls this disconnect from your characters frigidity. He says:
Strictly speaking, frigidity characterizes the writer who presents material, then fails to carry through—fails to treat it with the attention and seriousness it deserves. I would extend the term to mean a further coldheartedness as well; the given writer's inability to recognize the seriousness of things in the first place, the writer who turns away from real feeling, or sees only the superficialities in a conflict of wills, or knows no more about love, beauty, or sorrow than one might learn from a Hallmark card. —The Art of Fiction, John Gardner
Ouch. I'm sure he's not talking about you, but if you're keeping your characters at arms length, it's time to get in close and fully embrace the conflict in your story.
Have you ever wanted to avoid the conflict in your story? What did you do to embrace it?
Take a scene from a work in progress or a practice you wrote recently and rewrite the conflict. Try to sit with it, to see things from the perspective of your characters, and treat their plight with the “seriousness it deserves.”
Write for fifteen minutes. When you're finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, be sure to comment on a few practices by other writers.