I have a character on the verge of killing someone.
Unfortunately for him, he can’t do it quite yet. Because, currently, he needs the other character. Oooh, but he hates him.
It was that realization that he, character 1, doesn’t have to like the situation, even if he is currently putting up with it, that resonated with me. THIS is a way to build tension. As logically as character 1 knows that at this moment he needs character 2, it doesn’t mean that he isn’t thinking about that moment when character 2 isn’t needed. It doesn’t mean that when character 2 grows nervous because character 1 speaks the same language as the guards he isn’t thinking character 1 is about to turn him in. Or that character 1 isn’t willingly giving that impression (while thinking he just might tell the guards the next time).
But I could have gone halfway with the emotions.
Character 1 could have been grumpy about the situation, mildly forgiving, or just mourning the death of his beloved. That would have kept the story kicking along just fine. But it wouldn’t have built tension.
What You'll Learn
Halfways NEVER build tension.
Having character 1 seriously considering betraying/stabbing/leaving behind character 2 keeps even me guessing as I write. Will he keep his cool together? Why on earth did anyone pair these two up for this extremely important mission that is pivotal to success (well, because they were the only two with the skills, of course!)? If I’m guessing what will happen next, what will the reader be doing? I’m betting gripping their ereader while forgetting the rest of the world exists. None of that would happen if I didn’t push the character to the extreme.
And, trust me, it isn’t just true of my story. There really isn’t any room for almosts and halfways in fantasy or, really, any novel.
As soon as you see yourself typing words like “seemed to be,” “sort of,” “almost,” “might,” or “possibly” stop.
The character shouldn’t seem to be upset. Make her upset. What kind of upset is she? A tantrum, angry, crying, physically violent? Great! That is descriptive. Use it. Let her take a punch or need someone to step in and send her for a walk, which will lead to an angry character alone, one who isn’t paying 100% attention to what she should be paying attention to because she is too focused on the wrong thing. THAT is a situation to develop.
Fantasy isn’t real life. It is real life on steroids with magic thrown in.
So push it and your characters to new extremes. Let them fall head over heels in love with the wrong person or at the wrong moment (or both!). Let them despise even if they have to get along with a personal enemy… for the moment. But when they don’t have to anymore…
Because who knows were the story will lead. Two enemies can bridge hatred if they learn to work together. Love can betray more deeply than a fond associate. If two characters want to be explosive together, absolutely pair them up and send them on a life and death mission to save the world. It is so much more interesting than sending best friends, even if you plan on killing one off.
As you write and edit look for these words to avoid: almost, seemed, might, possibly, nearly, wanted to, potentially (can you think of more?)
Remember that events and emotions happen or do not happen. No in betweens. Don’t have a character almost hit another one. Throw punches. Steal that kiss. Let your characters fully experience life and emotion. It will suck your readers into the world much better than something halfway.
What do you think? Have you read stories you wished had a bit more oomph because the characters seemed timid or too well intentioned? Can emotional extremes be taken too far? Let me know in the comments!