The idea of any writer is to push their characters above and beyond their perceived ability to deal with the world they live in. When you’re doing character development on your characters, learning about them and their personalities, you try and find that one thing that your character would never do and then somehow find a way to force them to confront that situation. Can you push your character that far? Can you create a believable story where your character develops so much that when that moment of truth presents itself to them, after you’ve battered and abused them beyond the point of reason or sensibility, will the readers believe that they’re finally willing to do that one last thing that they would have never done before the story occurred?
I can think of several examples of this in some of the reoccurring series I read. David Weber’s Honor Harrington books started out with Honor Harrington’s first command and the character disavows politics only to find herself a key political figure as the series continues. She said early on that she would never like or understand politics, and yet she becomes a trusted political advisor. The transition is so gradual through the books, and Harrington’s character goes through so much that the progress is believable and a logical progression for her development. Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville series starts out with a very passive, follow-the-pack character who becomes the leader of her local pack through a series of events that forces her to push herself and do the right thing. When Norville finally becomes the pack leader and constantly gets put into a situation where she must defend her pack from enemies she doesn’t even understand, her character development has been so strong that you still see echoes of where she came from in a lot of her solutions to the problems that face her pack.
I believe that every genre faces this turning point for their characters. In romance, it could be the pivotal moment where the main characters finally realize they are perfect for each other. In horror, it’s the moment when the main character does exactly what the antagonist did first – that moment when she chops up the man who murdered her into tiny little pieces and feeds those pieces to her ex-boyfriend who watched the rape and did nothing. In young adult, it’s the moment when the main character realizes that all the bullies were wrong about them and that they are special and can do amazing things.
So what does it take to find out how much your character can take before you finally find that one extra step? In an earlier post, I spoke at length about how to make your characters suffer. It’s all about physical, emotional, and mental abuse. This is made much easier when you then exhaust your character. People who are exhausted make mistakes – sometimes big ones. It’s harder to think when you’re beyond exhausted. It’s harder to do simple things. It’s easier to hallucinate and create comic moments for your characters at entertaining times.
I’ve read a lot of books where unconsciousness becomes a lazy way for a lot of writers to do some sort of scene switch. One of the first drafts of my novel actually had my character getting beaten up fairly solidly on a regular basis, but she also then demonstrated the signs and symptoms of attempting to focus with massive head trauma. It’s harder than you’d think. Your cognitive functions slow and basic things that you know should make sense simply don’t. Your body doesn’t move the way you think it should. Exhaustion is somewhat similar.
So while you’re looking for ways to push your character to their breaking point, you might also consider exhaustion and how that will affect your character’s ability to make the correct decisions. Or perhaps what happens after your character has passed their breaking point and done that one thing they swore they would never do, and look at the exhaustion that would come after that pivotal moment in their life.