Give Your Characters (and Yourself) a Break

Photo by Rex Pickar on Unsplash

Within a month of opening my doors as a freelance fiction editor in mid-July 2021, I started searching for the right project management tool for keeping my direct-labor work scheduled and organized. I needed a system that allowed me to manage my clients, calendar, workflows, and contracts in one place. I gave Trello a cursory review, but eventually went with Dubsado. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I could adapt Trello to my needs in a different capacity.

You see, my goals and task lists—daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly—used to be spread over a host of whiteboards, legal pads, sticky notepads, and whatever scrap piece of paper was closest. A task management Trello template recommended by a colleague is what finally sold me on it as a useful organizational tool. I’ve been able to consolidate all those lists into one place, retaining my color-coding system and saving some trees while I’m at it.

This week’s blog, though, isn’t about the plethora of project, client relationship, or even task management tools that saturate the twenty-first century’s business market. One of the best features of my Trello setup is being able to track my time spent on individual tasks on a daily basis and seeing (in a lovely bar graph format) how many hours I logged each day and on which tasks and categories I spent the most time.

Cue a few major end-of-first-quarter epiphanies that hit me a week ago:

  1. Seventy-five percent of the thirty-five to fifty working hours I tracked was spent on creating some type of content for the social media platforms I use as a business owner.
  2. Including tasks for personal care, my days lasted anywhere from fourteen to eighteen hours. With four dogs on top of that, I was lucky to get six solid hours of sleep a night.
  3. My energy significantly waned over the course of the week, so often by Thursday, I simply had nothing left to give. Even if there was a looming deadline.

So, what is this week’s blog about? And what on Gaia’s somehow-still-green earth does this have to do with story conflict? The transitions between major plot events are what can make or break your novel’s plausibility. These transitions are what give your characters the breathing room they need to analyze what just happened, weigh any new approaches to existing (or new) problems, and recalibrate their systems internally and externally.

More importantly, they give you an equal chance to catch your own breath, recharge your mental and physical batteries, and figure out what course correction(s) to make before starting back on the path to your own goals.

Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels

Remember the Why

Deciding to rebrand my business wasn’t a hard choice, but it wasn’t an easy one, either. Freelancing those first two years under my own name was fulfilling, but it always felt like something was missing. It was learning about the brand archetype The Sage that showed me the missing piece to my entrepreneurial puzzle. Kubi Springer describes this archetype as, “aiming to celebrate curiosity, these brands seek to spread their knowledge with an unwavering desire to uncover and comprehend the truth.

Conflict—internal or external, small or large—must cause friction in your character’s world. However, constant friction is unsustainable, not unless you want to set your whole story ablaze. The character must have opportunities to recover from the fight they’ve just survived. In doing so, they have a chance to remember why they started on this perilous journey in the first place.

Yes, things are not going well in this moment. Pull your character back, tuck them away in a safe haven, and give them the tools they need to heal. Give them that visual or mental reminder that their cause is worth fighting for despite the odds against them.

Reconnect with the Tribe

I have a personal Facebook and TikTok account, and I have professional ones, and never shall the two meet. Why? Because I connect differently with my close friends and family than I do with most of my colleagues. When I decided that I needed to take a break from the rat race that was social media content creation, I reached out to a few people I’ve been lucky enough to consider both colleagues and good friends. I bounced off new ideas and strategies for content, potential services I’ve been considering offering, and even plot and scene ideas for my novella-in-progress-that-might-end-up-a-novel.

A novel’s supporting characters are, in a sense, more powerful than the protagonist. Specifically, they better a reader’s understanding of the main character, the struggles the main character is facing (or might face in the future), and the impact their presence has on how the main character moves through the story. They can either hold your protagonist back, prop them up in a time of need, or propel them forward.

Use dialogue between the protagonist and their supporting character(s) to explore options for addressing current and future complications. Have the supporting character ask those painful and clarifying questions the protagonist must dig deep to answer. Show the supporting character disagreeing with the protagonist’s course of action, either in part or as a whole. Make them free agents who may seek guidance of their own from your protagonist. Teamwork makes the dreamwork and whatnot.

Gird the Loins and Move Forward

I used my break from content creation to review what I’d accomplished these first few months of 2024. More than that, I used it to start two new craft books, and apply those lessons to my current work-in-progress as I go. The more time I spent lost in Scrivener, character profiles, and experimental scenes, the easier the story’s outline started to form.

My passion for fiction writing reignited all over again, as did my insatiable curiosity for everything related to the art and science of storytelling. It was a feeling I’d been missing since my rebranding, honestly, and I realized why. I was applying the content strategy I used last year to my new business focus. This break gave me the space to figure out how to put in place a more efficient, effective, and authentic practice for the coming quarter.

Your story’s genre(s) will heavily influence the amount of page space you can dedicate to the pauses your protagonist will need to debate how and when they get back into the fight. Use that page space judiciously by not only showing the planning your character engages in, but the coping skills they use to work out their solutions. Ask what place will let them clear their heads, to review their mishaps and find the courage to face their conflict anew, this time with renewed focus. Make it clear to readers that while your protagonist may have been knocked down, they’re not going to stay there.

Photo by Dan Dumitriu on Unsplash

I tend to quote K.M. Weiland a lot, but this in particular resonated hard considering the spiral I found myself in a week ago.

Low moments in fiction are designed to trigger this exact kind of soul-searching. At the end of the day, ‘rediscovering joy’ isn’t about writing at all; it’s about life. [. . .] Showing rigorous integrity in being honest about your own reasons and motives for anything is one of the highest calls of being a human.

Realistic characters, the ones readers identify with the most, struggle. They struggle hard. They face conflicts that from the outside look impossible to overcome. In fact, few would blame them for turning around and returning to their comfort zone. Of course, that also means your readers would have no reason to finish your book, but I—as usual—digress.

Use those transition scenes or chapters to recenter your protagonist. Give them space and time to acknowledge where and why they went wrong, and how those choices directly and indirectly affect any path they might take going forward. Once that choice is made, though, shove them out of said comfort zone and back into the maelstrom of conflict they still need to overcome.

Your readers will thank you for the reprieve right before chasing after your protagonist to see what happens next, reflecting on your story one word at a time as they run.

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