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Throw Obstacles at Your Characters

by Laura Backes

Successful children's fiction begins with the main character. Many writers create a biography or detailed character sketch, listing every physical and personality trait imaginable, so they have a clear picture of who their character is. Then they give their main (and important secondary) characters a list of goals.

What does he/she want to accomplish? What does he/she need to do in order to grow as a person? The goals must be believable within the realm of who this character is. These goals are as important in picture books as they are in novels. How your character reaches his large and small goals provides the bare bones of plot.

But in order for a story to be really interesting, your character can't just think of a goal and then effortlessly reach it. As a writer, it's your job to throw obstacles in your character's way.

By developing obstacles that make sense, you add conflict and tension to the plot. If you progressively raise the stakes for your character throughout the story, you'll keep your readers turning pages to see what happens next.

The first obstacle your character will encounter is that of the critical situation. This is the point in the beginning of your story at which the character's life changes. Without this critical situation, the character's life would have gone on as before; but with it the character is forced to experience the story's events and challenges. This critical situation should relate directly to the character's goals, creating major shifts in the character's life.

Once you select the critical situation, get out your list of goals and select several that lend themselves to creating opportunities for relevant obstacles throughout the story. Some of these obstacles can be developed into sub-plots. For example:

  • Does the character have to be somewhere at a specific time? Make him late, or make him miss the appointment altogether.

  • Does the character need to find something? Make the search difficult or fruitless.

  • Does the character need to communicate with someone? Have the note destroyed by weather, stolen by a bad guy or misinterpreted by the receiver.

  • Does the character need to be alone? Make sure she's surrounded by people.

When developing an obstacle for your character to overcome, you can examine the obstacle from various perspectives:

  1. The character can experience the obstacle himself, or choose not to experience it, which might result in different problems. For example, your character may experience bicycle trouble, making him late to a vital class or appointment, or he may choose not to participate in a family gathering or holiday celebration.

  2. The character can be the victim of the obstacle, with the obstacle being done to or used on the character, which requires a reaction from the character (i.e., your character may get ambushed by the neighborhood gang).

  3. The character can witness something which provokes a reaction, decision or conflict. For example, she may witness a robbery by the neighborhood gang, but some of the members are her friends and she must decide whether or not to report the incident to the police.

Another way of creating obstacles is to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What could go wrong when trying to achieve or obtain the goal?
  2. Who or what could hinder progress toward this goal?
  3. When could things go wrong? Name the worst times.
  4. Where could things go wrong? List a location and three obstacles that could occur.
  5. How could things go wrong? List the process or sequence of events, or the mechanisms involved.

Also think about the obstacle's placement in the story. What needs to happen before the obstacle takes place so it can have the most dramatic impact? What should you foreshadow? And what information does the reader need to make this obstacle interesting and believable?

Finally, does anything about this obstacle lead the character into the next goal and the next obstacle? Ideally, the character runs from one problem to another until finally he either succeeds or fails at his goal.

Remember, for an obstacle to work it must be logically and intricately connected to everything else that's happening in the story. But that doesn't mean it has to be predictable. The obstacles can be humorous, suspenseful and above all, surprising. Then you'll have characters your readers will want to root for.

Copyright © 2001 Children's Book Insider, LLC
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Laura Backes is the author of Best Books for Kids Who (Think They) Hate to Read, from Prima Publishing. She's also the publisher of Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers. For more information about writing children's books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more, visit Children's Book Insider's home on the web at http://write4kids.com.

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