Have you heard of the game Clash of Clans? I have it on my iPad. My firstborn minion convinced me I’d like it, then he downloaded it onto my device and showed me how to make a few moves.
(photo of barbarian courtesy of wikipedia)
Within minutes, I was addicted. Seriously addicted. I only have two builders, and I refuse to spend real money to buy more gems, so I can’t get a third builder. Not so big a deal, when the little stuff only takes 15 minutes to create a new mine or an elixir collector. But then I started upgrading stuff. A level 6 archer tower takes 24 hours to upgrade to level 7. A level 6 town hall takes 6 days! And it takes 1.2 million gold to make that upgrade. Do you know how long it takes to save up 1.2 million in gold when you don’t have a shield and other players raid while I’m sleeping and even if I were awake I couldn’t do anything about it because the game shuts you out when raiders are stealing all your hard earned gold and elixir… *face plant to desk* Yes, I am ashamed to admit, I’ve gotten up at 2 am to set a builder to a new task, or collect gold and elixir from the storage containers, thus making it a little bit harder for raiders to get to it. Seriously, people, I am obsessed with this game.
What does it have to do with writing, you ask? Obsessions, addictions, and fixations make gloriously interesting characters. Do you have a protagonist who’s capable of the job but is kind of boring? Give him an obsession! He must collect car parts from a 1963 Chevy Corvair. I’m not talking about when he sees a junk yard he must stop in and see what’s there. I’m talking about spending his grocery money on windshield wipers and gas caps. I’m talking about spending every single weekend visiting swap meets and junk yards and vintage car shows in search of the smallest stuff, like hoses, gaskets, and hub cap bolts. Are there bolts on a hub cap? I don’t know, but your obsessed protagonist sure will. The beauty of an obsession is that it is yet another conflict to be conquered before reaching The Goal. How can your hero save the world if he’s devoted to grease-monkeying in all his free time?
If you decide to give your hero an obsession or addiction, PLEASE avoid the cliches: alcohol, gambling, prostitutes, that sort of stuff. If you must use one of these, make it fresh and interesting. Maybe your hero isn’t out soliciting prostitutes for sex. Maybe he’s trying to save them from the streets. But even that can be cliche. Maybe these young girls remind him of his daughter, who died on the streets at the hands of a john. Now we’re getting closer, but it’s still be done to death on Law and Order: SVU and CSI. Maybe he believes that the only way to get to Heaven is to save as many people as possible from the streets before his death, which is eminent because he’s got brain cancer and only has three months to live. Okay, I’ll admit I’m getting silly now, but you get the idea.
Most of us have simple addictions or obsessions–or maybe those words are too strong for what we experience. We enjoy our hobbies. We don’t break our budgets on these things, we don’t neglect other important duties for these things, we don’t fixate. We have a healthy balance in life. Identify yours. Mine include reading (if your read my last post of 2013, you probably noticed that I read 120 novels last year. That doesn’t include the non-fiction I read. But I read fast, and I don’t let it keep me from the laundry or homeschooling or cooking dinner that I must do every day. I do manage to lose some sleep over this one, but it’s not like I’m staying up until 3 am reading…), writing, and playing computer games (Civilization is another addiction of mine). I spend the bulk of my free time doing these things.
Now take it one step beyond. How can you turn this love of (fill in the blank) into an obsession? Simply make that hobby into your character’s main joy in life, to the exclusion of all else. A good obsession will throw the rest of life out of balance. It’ll soak up the savings account, the grocery budget, and the kids’ allowance. It’ll intrude upon family time. It may even intrude on work time, and what supervisor will allow an employee to take off for lunch and not come back? Maybe your hero’s obsession isn’t with a hobby. Maybe it’s with an ideal: justice, freedom, the eradication of socialism.
Play around with the idea and see what you can come up with. Better yet, brainstorm in the comments section below. What kind of obsessions can you come up with? Can you think of any obsessions that would be better for an antagonist than a protagonist? Can you come up with one that would be nearly impossible for the protagonist to deal with while he’s trying to reach The Goal? Have fun with this exercise and share what you come up with.