Okay, so you have a great story idea, one where your hero/heroine is going to transcend all emotional barriers and rise to fame, glory, and readers will ponder for a long time the impact of your story. Sounds good. You start writing, dive into the story with gusto and once finished hand it over to your first beta reader. But wait, the reader is frowning, they’re using a lot of red pencil all over your masterpiece, they don’t feel like finishing it…what happened?
The answer could be any number of things but I’d like to write about the importance of opposition today.
Say your protagonist is going to be a save the world type and with each obstacle the story throws in their way they leap over the problems growing more and more powerful. The problem with this is you haven’t allowed your protagonist to struggle, to fail. Without the nasty taste of failure in their mouth they won’t taste the full sweetness of victory when your climax comes about. Neither will the reader. For maximum impact, if you want your save the world type protag to not only save the world but to take the reader on a rush of triumphant emotion along with your protag, you need to let them both go through the lowest possible failures and disappointments.
Or say you have a protagonist who is destined to experience a great love in your story. They’ll need to experience the opposite of your climactic moment in order for that climax to hit the roof (or beyond.) Whether the protagonist is actively looking for love and can’t find it, or they are shying away from it and being pursued, or they have gone through a massive breakup with someone they were very close to—the reader needs to see and feel the contrast with the protagonist or the climactic romance moment won’t do the job you intend it to.
Think about it, it’s just like real life. We don’t know the sweetness of being healthy if we’re never sick. We appreciate anew our bodies after they’ve healed from being broken or injured. We appreciate our loved ones after an absence or a hurtful misunderstanding has been cleared up. We can’t comprehend the simple joys of our every day luxuries unless we’ve had to do without them. The importance of an education, the satisfaction of holding down a job, the excitement of making a discovery or breakthrough, being able to eat regularly, having a place to live or a means of transportation. Look at your own life. You’ll probably find you have a better appreciation for those things you’ve had to do without or have experienced the opposite of.
Then apply this to your characters. Don’t pamper them, don’t be nice to them. Make them appreciate what they gain or lose. Make their climaxes rise higher than you thought they could by putting your characters through the grist-mill.
A character in perfect surroundings, with a perfect support cast, and super powers with no weaknesses learns nothing. They don’t grow.
Finding and creating these contrasts can be done on all levels of a story, not only the big issues and conflicts but even the small, short moments of frustration can compound to make a character grow. To make that inevitable victory or moment of transcendence powerful. If you want your protagonist to change from being a snooty rich kid to one who willingly helps others, what should you do? Trip them up, let them take a long walk in the shoes of others, even better if it is other people they are prejudice against or they misunderstand. Let them feel what it’s like to be cold, hungry, homeless, misunderstood, ridiculed, and rejected. The deeper their experiences, the more they’ll learn. The more we learn as a writer too. And perhaps the exact goal we had in mind is changed by our new perceptions as we take the journey with our characters.
Some of the best books ever not only effect change in the story’s characters but in the lives of the readers as well. Often, these are the books that are read more than once or twice. They have good shelf life. They aren’t a one-time wonder which leave half-satiated fans eagerly searching for more from other sources.
Sometimes we experience insight through others around us. Maybe we have a friend who’s gone through a nasty betrayal or lost their job for reasons that seem innocuous to us. What can we learn second-hand to avoid similar problems ourselves? It’s the same for characters. Use your secondary and tertiary characters to help bolster the learning process for your main characters. But don’t fall into the pit of letting only your side characters suffer. If this is the case, you’re writing about the wrong people.
What do you want your character to experience, learn, or gain? Write down the opposite. Then write even more opposites. Find the appropriate places to put them and get to work teaching your characters the hard way.