“No matter how tempted I am with the prospect of unlimited power, I will not consume any energy field bigger than my head.” — Peter’s Evil Overlord List, Rule #22
Desire. Fear. Means and Ends. It’s what defines us when we’re under pressure. Fictional characters shouldn’t be all that different.
They want something. They’re afraid of something. And they have to figure out what they’re willing to give up in order to get what they want without whatever they’re scared of eating them alive.
Of these three factors, as a writer fear is probably the one to watch out for. What a character wants is pretty straight-forward usually, at least from the character’s point of view. It’s the left side of the equation, full of knowns. Fear is trickier. A character might be afraid of becoming what she hates. Or maybe he feels like a fraud and fears being exposed to the world. The character’s great fear need not even be made that apparent even to the character himself or it could be exposed over time or when she’s put under stress.
Take Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. Chicago-based wizard/private eye Harry Dresden wants to solve the case and get paid. In the beginning of the series, basic survival weighs heavily on him. To do so he’s got to deal with the Chicago Police, mobsters, vampires, werewolves, and faeries great and small. He finds allies where he can while maintaining his own code of ethics.
What he’s scared of is a bit harder to pin down, at least at first. Like other good wizards in fantasy, say Tolkien’s Gandalf, he’s ultimately scared of becoming a monster. Wizards have access to a great deal more power than normal mortals, and so one must be wary of temptation. That scene in The Lord of the Rings where Frodo Baggins offers the One Ring to Gandalf–and the wizard’s reaction to being tempted with absolute power–exemplifies what I’m talking about here. Power corrupts, and as the series goes on he gets more of it, but has to deal with more nightmarish adversaries as he gets more powerful. Moreover, he’s got a past that began before the series began, well before he was even born. His mother was a powerful wizard who died giving birth to him. He inherits allies and enemies because of this, while she remains a mystery to him.
In the short term, he’s afraid of not making rent and so having his wizardly ass thrown out on the street. We all live day by day.
And what stands between his desires and his fears is ethics. Like the rest of us, Dresden has a mix of internal and external limits on his morality. Externally he’s got mortal authorities who deny the existence of magic as well as the White Council. Human wizards live by seven laws of magic in the Dresdenverse, including do not mess with the minds of others with magic or kill other humans with magic. Outside the Seven Laws, everything is fair. Not that Dresden or anyone else has to like it that way.
Often running counter to either human laws and the Laws of Magic, he’s got his own personal code of ethics–another good place to stick in tension. He wants to protect other humans from harm. He doesn’t want to see his friends come to harm. And he will not sell his soul to mortal or supernatural power players like the vampire courts, the faerie queens, or the Chicago mob.
The trick for Harry Dresden is solving the case while not becoming a monster. And his ethics mediate between the two, provide limits on what he’s willing and capable of doing. Early on in the series, the ‘becoming a monster’ part is pretty black and white. As the series goes on, Dresden is tempted by some seriously heavy sources of magic. Becoming the consort to the Faerie Queen Mab, making a pact with a fallen angel, and using a powerful magic word that could change him into a god.
Urban fantasy author Jen Ponce establishes what her character Devany Miller fears most in The Bazaar. She stumbles on a demonic bazaar where humans are bought and sold for nefarious magical purposes. She has an assassin spider and a disembodied witch living in her head. And she’s entered into a contract with a demonic entity called Tytan that threatens to seriously compromise her personal ethics. But what Devany fears most is losing her kids. That’s a bit more straightforward than what Dresden’s dealing with. But in both cases the protagonist seeks to maintain the balance by putting restraints on his or her own power. The question with Devany is what is she willing to do in order to keep her two children safe? Tytan wants her to do his will, but she puts up resistance and uses her wits and sense of decency to fulfill her contract with him on her own terms.
The take-away lesson from Tolkien, Butcher, and Ponce is that when you’re writing about characters who are faced with huge hurdles, what you should keep in mind is what the character is not willing to do to achieve his or her goals. In all three cases, the authors created tension by giving their characters a tightrope to walk, with their ethics being the tightrope and their fear being the ground below. Gandalf could take the Ring and defeat Sauron, but he refuses to simply become the next Evil Overlord. So he stays the straight and narrow path. The tension in that decision, to stay the course, makes for a much more compelling story than simply taking on absolute power and go toe-to-toe with Sauron (who as a big lidless eye isn’t all that interesting to be honest).