Is it time to throw rocks at your characters?

 

Scene from Dante's Peak with lava rocks thrown at the characters.
Scene from Dante’s Peak with lava rocks thrown at the characters.

“The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.”
—Vladimir Nabokov

I read this quote a long time ago and had sorta forgotten it. My editor, (in a roundabout way) reminded me of it. But have you ever noticed this? A great example of this is the movie Dante’s Peak. Especially the last half.

The volcano is about to erupt, ash is falling like snow in a blizzard and the mayor’s kids have taken the truck and gone up the mountain to bring stubborn grandma to safety. Personally, I was with mom, if grandma doesn’t want to come down…then stay up there and get lavafied. But now, mom and our manly hero Harry, “have” to go up the mountain also. We see them headed up the mountain ash falling so thick they can hardly see.

Jean Lauzier
Jean Lauzier

A helicopter crashes right in front of them; rock slides threaten to knock them off the road. Trees are falling left and right. They barely make it through a rock and tree slide that blocks the road behind them. Grandma is upset, mom is upset, and the road behind them is blocked. What will they do now?

Moments later, lava starts pouring down the mountain and into the back of her house. They run out the front door, lava flows around the trucks so they run to the boat that just happens to be there. Motoring down the lake to safety, they notice the dead fish. Seems the lake has turned to acid and has started to eat the metal boat. Talk about throwing a rock. Here they are, in the middle of a lake of acid, surrounded by dead fish…in a leaking boat. What could be worse than this?

Again, the writer throws another rock. The propeller on the boat motor has been eaten away and no longer is useful. And to make matters worse, the water in the boat is rising fast. Grandma saves the day by jumping into the lake and towing the boat to safety. As they run down the dock to land, it crumbles beneath their feet but they do make it to shore. Naturally, Grandma dies before they reach the ranger station and another truck. But at least she’s redeemed herself.

As our characters drive cross country, things seem to have swung their way. Until the lava blocks their path, front and back. Driving through is the only way to go. As they head into the lava, the truck tires begin to burn and then, the writer throws another rock. They get stuck. Lava is heading toward them, tires are on fire and they are stuck. Heroic effort gets them out and going again when what do they see, Grandma’s dog on a boulder. They can’t leave him…

Eventually, they make it to town and the safety of a mineshaft. As they settle in to rest, Harry realizes he forgot to turn on the NASA GPS device that will tell the world they are alive in this mineshaft. Returning to the truck, Harry is injured in a tunnel collapse but manages to struggle onward. Climbing in the broken windshield, the tunnel collapses more, crushing the top of the truck. Finally, Harry is in the truck, broken arm and all. What else could go wrong? The roof is creaking and groaning and sinking lower and the GPS, won’t turn on. Eventually, he gets the GPS turned on and they are rescued.

Our characters need to be challenged also. The reader needs to care about what happens to our hero or heroine. If they don’t, the reader won’t finish the book. When you are writing, think about what could happen next. What rock can you throw and increase the risk or raise the stakes for your main character? Then, let it happen. Let your character be tested and have to struggle. Put him/her in a situation that causes them to grow and change, to test their limits and moral fiber.

I need to throw some rocks at my characters. Hope they can dodge.

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