Nail your lead character into a coffin

I don’t mean go all George R R Martin and kill them outright. I mean that you should make an effort to put your characters into situations that seem impossible to escape from – and then watch how they ingeniously do escape.

We are all so used to fiction now, and the standard of good triumphing over evil, that it takes some doing for a fiction writer to actually make us feel like the character is in genuine danger. Even when the hero is suspended over a pit of snakes, we still know they will get out – the interest comes in finding out how.

Ideally, you’ll make people really genuinely feel there is no escape for your character, whether it be a pit of snakes, an overbearing spouse or a mental illness. You should think long and hard about what sort of situations you can put your character into which will have them stuck and stumped.

I think it’s best that you personally don’t know the answer when you first come up with these situations – that will make them feel more genuine.

Take five minutes to try to come up with five situations that appear to be impossible to escape. Here are a few to get you started:

  • Jemima has been captured by her arch nemesis and trapped in a coffin (nailed shut, naturally), which is wrapped in iron chains and is on a conveyor belt heading towards a cremation furnace.
  • Victor is trapped in a dead end job. He has huge debts to pay off, no qualifications and estranged from his family.
  • Francis has been wrongly accused of child abuse. All her friends have turned against her and the authorities won’t listen to anything she says. She’s been fired from her job and her husband has left her and taken her children.

Once you’ve got a handful of those sorted, spend a little more time coming up with the solutions. Try not to make too much use of outside help – the character needs to solve the issue under their own steam.

Or, if you are too lazy to come up with your own, try to come up with solutions for the scenarios detailed above. Make sure you do yours before reading mine, below.

Here are my ideas:

  • The coffin is wood, so as it nears the fire, the wood begins to warp and burn. She squeezes herself against the far end as far as possible, and when enough of the coffin is burning, she kicks through and escapes.
  • Victor’s dead end job is selling holidays. One day a man comes in just his age but clearly much happier and more successful, who explains he has no money, but he just roams the world. Victor packs everything in and buys his own holiday with his last paycheck and sets off with just a suitcase of things. While in Thailand he discovers an aromatic incense that induces deep calm. He brings some back home with him and starts his own business selling it, which is a great success.
  • Francis scours through the testimony of the child and manages to find some details which prove that they are making it up. She also researches child psychology and finds evidence that parents plant and enhance the concepts tentatively suggested by children. At the final court hearing the child who accused her breaks down in tears saying it was only meant to be a joke and he is really sorry. The judge rules in her favour.

Please do enter your ideas below!

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