You may have heard something about the catastrophic failure of our utility systems in Texas during last month’s Snowpocalypse that left millions without power and water for days.
At first, we were plucky about it. With no water for two days, we gathered buckets of snow and melted, boiled, and filtered it for drinking water. When the power went out we braced for the 2-degree temps overnight, swaddled ourselves and our dogs in blankets, and were grateful for our Kindles and each other. It was unpleasant, but an adventure, and over and over we said how grateful we were for each other, that we and our dogs and loved ones were safe and had shelter, that we could find ways to get by. We checked on friends, neighbors, shared resources, offered help, accepted it when needed. We were doing okay.
But when we entered day five with no water (though grateful to finally have power back), we were over it. Our situation was arguably better than it had been—we had power, heat, gas, enough water to get by (carefully) till it came back on (hopefully), and the ice outside was thawing enough that we could finally safely leave the house if need be and look for supplies or take generous friends up on offers of water and showers.
And yet our attitudes were much worse. The situation felt harder than it had when we were in the worst of it, freezing cold in the dark and taking shepherded sips of boiled snow that tasted like dirt.
The difference in our discomfort and mindset was acceptance—leaning in as we did at first, making the best of the unavoidably bad situation—versus pushing against, which we did as our fortitude wore thin.
While life was easier when we leaned in, fiction is juicier when your characters push against.
Pushing Against Raises Stakes
Increasing resistance, conflict, friction all raise stakes, increase motivations, augment suffering for your characters in the very best sadistic tradition of a good story.
Whatever rocks you’re throwing at your character—maybe her partner has asked for a divorce, maybe he’s lost his job, maybe she’s on the trail of a bad guy who turns the tables and captures her—see if you can increase motivation, tension, and stakes by adding a strong element of pushing against: Let readers see your character railing against this injustice done to her or this obstacle he must surmount, resisting it, wallowing in the misery of it.
There’s a Buddhist parable about the “second arrow”: A man in the forest is inadvertently struck by a hunter’s stray arrow. Wounded and bleeding, he slumps to the forest floor and wails, “Why did I come into the forest today? Why did I have the bad luck to stand here when the arrow came? How could this have happened to me?”
That’s the second arrow—the way we make our suffering infinitely worse by attacking ourselves, by torturing ourselves with remorse or if-onlys, by bemoaning all that is damaged or lost, instead of accepting the new reality and dealing with it: taking out the arrow, for instance, stanching the wound, finding help.
In life, we can make our paths smoother by avoiding that second arrow, but in the story, having your characters push back and resist and fight against the challenges, setbacks, and misfortunes that befall them can amp up conflict and tension that creates a strong story.
Leaning In Shows Character Arcs
Then as the story unspools you can use leaning in as a way of showing your character’s growth, her progression along her arc toward her goal.
Acceptance doesn’t mean inaction: Even amid the worst of Snowmageddon 2021, as we accepted our situation and made the best of it with humor and positivity, we were working on bettering our situation: gathering and filtering more snow to drink, checking the pipes, and trying to warm them, salvaging what food we could from the warming refrigerator by packing it in snow in coolers.
When your characters come to accept and lean in they are finally free to do something to help themselves out of the situation: The wife accepts that her partner is done with their marriage and stops trying to win them back, for instance, instead of figuring out how she herself has changed and finding a fulfilling new path forward for herself. The man lets go of his rage over being fired and realizes he wasn’t happy there anyway. The captured hero stops railing against her situation and starts plotting her escape.
In an interview, John McCain, famously a POW for five and a half unthinkable years in Vietnam under horrific conditions, once said that his fellow prisoners who best weathered their imprisonment were the ones who accepted their new situation as their present reality, rather than bemoaning and dwelling on their old lives, all that they had lost in captivity. Leaning in allowed them to do what they had to do for their health, sanity, and survival.
Adding in elements of your characters pushing against their situations can increase the impact of their challenges, and showing how they eventually learn to lean in and accept their changed circumstances can free them to move through their difficulties, and strengthen their arc toward healing and growth.
Here’s the coda to our Texas tribulations: Power is fully restored, water is flowing again (though we’re still on a boil-water notice), and our community is digging out and building back up. Now there’s a whole fresh crop of challenges to overcome—people are coping with burst pipes, major water damage, lost income, and wildly inflated power and water bills—but in life (and good story!) there always are.