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Writers love to talk about motivations. We jabber cheerfully about character arcs and driving needs and how much more interesting a book becomes when the protagonist is active rather than passive. We speak -- very frequently, and with great enthusiasm -- about giving characters dreams; goals; a desperately-desired objective.

Since that topic's pretty much been covered, I'm not going to discuss the importance of goals today. Instead, I'm going to discuss how worthless they are.

You heard me. The carefully-constructed goals you hae concocted for your character are, sadly, meaningless... UNLESS they are paired with a compelling antagonist.

Still with me? I'll explain it mathematically.

goal + obstacle => empathy

In words: The combination of a goal and an obstacle generates empathy.

Remove either the goal or the obstacle, and the reader has no reason to get emotionally invested. That may sound obvious to some of you, but the lack of a credible antagonist is a very common flaw in fiction.

Let's suppose your main character likes cheesecake. No wait. She doesn't just like it; she adores it with a palpable passion. This woman would die for cheesecake. She would kill for it. She would climb the empire state building barehanded for... well, you get the idea.

Are you feeling any emotional connection to this woman? I'm not. No matter how many ways you try to spin it, Jane desperately craves cheesecake is not a story.

Why not? Because there's cheesecake in every restaurant and corner store this side of the atlantic, that's why. The more time we spend establishing Jane's urgent need for cheesecake, the more the reader's going to think: "Enough about the cheesecake, already! If you care that freaking much, then why don't you go eat some?"

Let's pair Jane's cheesecake craving with some possible antagonists.

Jane desperately craves a piece of strawberry cheesecake, but she is deathly allergic to strawberries.

Jane desperately craves a piece of strawberry cheesecake, but she doesn't want to look like a glutton in front of her friends.

Jane desperately craves a piece of strawberry cheesecake, but cheesecake has been outlawed by the recently-appointed dictator of the United States.

Interesting, isn't it, how each antagonist sends the story cavorting in an entirely different direction?

If you're like me, at least one of the above sentences got an emotional response. Not a huge response, of course, because we've only got the seed of a story. We'd have to layer in a lot more detail to properly tug a reader's heartstrings. But at least the story now has conflict.

Here's another little equation for you:

conflict = tension = goal + obstacle

When your critique group starts complaining that your work doesn't have enough tension: check for antagonists. Most authors instinctively establish goals as a story progresses, but they often forget to hilight the reasons why those goals are currently unattainable.

Stories arise from the intersection of a desire and an obstacle. Remember this the next time you start drafting. And always -- always -- give your protagonist a compelling reason not to eat the cheesecake.

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pingback_bot
Feb. 3rd, 2012 01:07 pm (UTC)
Interesting posts about writing – w/e February 3rd 2012
User jongibbs referenced to your post from Interesting posts about writing – w/e February 3rd 2012 saying: [...] (Daniel Palmer) What’s Wrong with the Cheesecake? [...]
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nancyfulda
nancyfulda

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The Death and
Rebirth of
Anne Bonny

and other stories

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Backlash
a novelette

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That Undiscovered Country
Jim Baen Memorial
Award Winner


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Movement
2011 Nebula Nominee

Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, March 2011

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The Breath of Heaven
Stories from Distant Worlds

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In the Halls of the Sky-Palace
Jim Baen's Universe, June 2009

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Backlash (novelette)
Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, 2010

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The Man Who
Murdered Himself

Phobos Award Winner

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Dead Men Don't Cry:
11 Stories by Nancy Fulda


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Nothing This Fun Could be Good for You (article)
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Clarkesworld Magazine





Like Rain From Silver Skies
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Basement Stories





Knowing Neither Kin Nor Foe
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Beneath Ceaseless Skies


Nancy Fulda is a 2012 Hugo and Nebula Nominee, a Phobos Award winner and a Vera Hinckley Mayhew Award recipient. She is the first (and so far only) female recipient of the Jim Baen Memorial Award. Her fiction has appeared in a number of professional venues.

Nancy Fulda is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

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