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Piling On—Frustrate Your Characters

March 4, 2016 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 4, 2016

Today’s article comes courtesy of a real-world experience.

My car battery died a couple of weeks ago, but because I work at home and have access to another car, I wasn’t in a hurry to replace the battery. But when I needed the car, I decided it was time for that new battery.

And thus began my adventure . . .

I called Triple A—Is the battery replacement service available in my area? No.

Okay. I can jump-start the car, drive it to a store where skilled folks can put in a new battery. But it’s cold and rainy (and then snowy!), so I’ll wait a day or two for a sunny day. A warmer day.

Warmer day arrives. I open the hood to find a nasty mess on the battery terminals. Clean with baking soda or Coke? I’ve heard about both options.

A quick check of the Internet lets me know that either option will work, but that video with baking soda looked cool.

Baking soda and water and a toothbrush do work wonders.

Next question: Will the jumper cables reach? Move the other car a bit and they do. But I can’t connect the cables by myself, so I have to enlist help. The delay is minimal. We manage to attach the cables without messing anything up.

The good car starts, runs a bit, and then I crank my car. Ah, something is happening, because the dashboard lights come on when they hadn’t before. But the car doesn’t start. Turn the key toward the off position in preparation to try again, but the car still sounds like it’s trying to crank. Weird. I pull the key out—the engine still sounds as if it’s fighting to turn over. How is that possible with no key in the ignition?

I see smoke rising from one of the battery terminals on my car. I rush outside, yell to my helper to come around to the front of the other car and start pulling off the jumper cables, in reverse order, of course.

The protective plastic on one set of the alligator clips is melting on my car; I see smoke rising from one set on the other car. It takes us a few minutes because my helper couldn’t get at the right angle to release one of the clamps on the good car—the clamp handle was hot, hot, hot.

Eventually we got the jumper cables safely free of the cars, with one of the clamps separating from the cable itself. I guess it’s time for a new set.

Call Triple A again. Can you give me a jump? No problem. An hour and 10 minutes later, a nice guy is taking care of the car. Good thing, because while I’d waited, I tackled a problem with a computer. (Windows 10, argh.) If the tow truck driver hadn’t arrived so quickly, I might have been pulling out my hair by the time he got there.

Call a local auto parts store to make sure they have a battery for my car; I don’t want to chance driving around, maybe having the car turn off, while I’m trying to get to a new battery. Since the jumper cables died, I can’t be guaranteed a jump somewhere out on the road. The store had the right battery, and I was off (glad to leave the computer problem behind). The clerk was walking out the door at the auto parts store and toward me before I’d exited the car.

Yeah, something was going right.

I held the hood up for the technician while he looked inside since the car is rather old (not yet a classic), and I didn’t want the hood to hit him. After all, he was helping me. When he had to go inside to get his tools, I put a thick blanket between the hood and the car’s body to keep the hood open. But a heavy piece of metal can’t stand up to gravity and a good wind. When I went inside the store too, the hood closed, just not all the way. One side was securely shut, the other held open by the blanket. Still, it locked all the same. However, the hood release wouldn’t release the lock, not with one side closed and one side cocked open.

And the blanket wouldn’t come out—it was wedged rather tightly.

The technician and I both tried to yank the blanket free and open the lock—I’m sure the other guys in the store wondered what we were doing.

After five minutes or so—with me laughing but not finding the incident funny—the lock released the hood and we were back in business.

Except that the battery didn’t want to come free of its restraints. The threading of whatever holds the battery terminals in place was stripped on the positive terminal. The tech tried size after size of some kind of ratchet, tried wrenches, then tried a lubricant and some extra elbow grease with what looked like a crowbar.

The battery was eventually free.

I was wondering how changing a battery had become a farce. Or a modern version of I Love Lucy.


So I had an adventure in getting a battery replaced. And one thing after another just piled on. Admittedly, I wasn’t in a hurry, I figured we’d get everything working right, and I wasn’t stuck on some scary or deserted road at night.

But you can add those kinds of details to your character’s adventure to create more frustration. Or heighten the sense of fear or anxiety.

You could add more problems to any scenario to raise the tension level.

Using this same scenario, you could have a mother racing to a school or an accident scene where her child is injured. If she ran into some of the same kinds of problems I had, she’d be frantic.

Or you could have the car stall in the middle of an intersection. You could have it stall in the path of other cars or you could introduce an unsavory character in the person of the stranger who offers to help push the car out of the middle of the road.

Instead of a dead battery, you could give your character a flat tire and then have the replacement tire wobble or go flat. You could have a character trying to get lug nuts off in the middle of a storm on the edge of a dark stretch of highway. You could give your character a flat tire both coming and going on the same day, something my mother dealt with many years ago, although that might not be believable today.

When it’s time to pile on the frustrations, go for it. But make them believable for the genre, the setting, the characters, and the circumstances. Think about cascading problems—one problem after another that are related or that spring from the same source, like falling dominoes.

Or add a secondary problem, such as I had with the computer. I’d been trying to fill the waiting time with a task that I thought I could easily finish while waiting, but because I didn’t finish it (and because there were layered problems with my efforts with the computer as well), that frustration added to the emotional weights piling up and dumping on me.

You never want to overburden your character since readers have to buy into the events that befall him or her, but don’t think that one little frustration is always going to be enough.

Characters can easily brush off some frustrations; other problems require a bit more patience. But when you unleash a storm over your character, that storm can lead to breakdowns and breakups and rage and tears and mistakes. A series of frustrations can bring out the best in a character or it could bring out the worst.

Try piling on the problems and see what your characters do in response. Or looked at in another way, give them reasons to respond in ways you need them to respond. If that means driving them to pull their hair out, do it. They can take it.

And then let them run with it.

With the cascading problems and your characters’ responses, you’ll have written some engaging and entertaining fiction.

No, it’s not entertaining when it happens to us in the real world. But it’s definitely entertaining when our characters have to deal with layered frustrations.




Tags:     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

6 Responses to “Piling On—Frustrate Your Characters”

  1. Mark Schultz says:

    Thanks for the great post and application of life to art. I have had many days like that myself.

  2. Sunni Morris says:

    Oh my…that reminds me of a day I had a couple of weeks ago. It was definitely like an old I Love Lucy episode. I can see how this would give you a good idea for a character’s problems in a novel.

  3. Catherine says:

    Thank you so much for the reminder! I’ve been told that the chapter I’m working on is like a swamp. Everything flowed before but comes to a stop there. For the last few hours I was trying to see what to cut, how to reorganize and there was your post waiting for me to give me the answer. I thought my chapter was going in a certain direction but I didn’t notice how problems were pilling up. Because there’s so much fluff around it, the accumulation of problems is hidden by too much dialogue, thoughts or small events. I’ll make sure to highlight the problems in a crescendo. I think it will actually make everything clearer. Thanks again for sharing the anecdote.

    • Catherine, I’m glad to have provided a timely reminder. I hope your character’s cascading problems work in all the ways you need them to work—to increase frustration and/or make your character behave in a way that causes even more problems. Have fun working through the chapter—you definitely don’t want the story to come to a halt in a swamp.

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