When it comes to conflict, obstacles, and tension, I like to sometimes examine my stories from the point-of-view of my protagonist. Thus, I’m using the term threats here. When I refer to layers, I’m talking about an array of issues, from the internal to those that are more indistinct, the low level hum you can’t identify or pinpoint—until it finds you.
I then build those layers so it’s difficult for my protagonist to have even a moment of true peace. This despite not getting any real pleasure out of doing so.
Confession time. My heroines are like close friends.
For this post I’m using Zephtasha Barcaine’s Protecting the Pneuma Key as my example. It takes place entirely in and around the city of Cather in Pannulus. All of Pannulus is in a northern climate, but Cather is a medium sized city in northwest Pannulus on Sancthor Island.
I’ll start with the internal…
Good characters possess flaws they aren’t aware of or deny. They also have those that haunt them. Oh no, I did it again kind of flaws. Zepha is someone who’s in danger of being consumed by hers. Viciously abused as a child, she suffers severe insecurities, low self-esteem, nervousness, trust issues, and even panic attacks. Her self talk? Awful.
There’s more, and I’m purposely leaving out her good qualities, which are many, even if she doesn’t recognize them. Confident? No. Determined? At times, strangely, yes.
Okay, let’s all make like onions and move out a layer…
Small pressures upon Zepha include her few friends who want her to reinvent her life give all she’s lost (more on that coming up). That would seem to be a good thing, but for someone like Zepha it creates continual, low level tension.
Her biggest problems stem from her ten-year probation (as a witch, she wears a shackle on her left wrist that suppresses her gift). Five years before, a different witch talked her into doing something humane, but illegal. The other witch went to the prison across the bay for ten years.
Zepha can’t leave Cather and, in the trial, it was revealed she’s gender spirited. She suffers regular harassment as a result. Tossed out of her coven (it’s a little like a convent), she lost her means of income. Instead, she lives in the imprisoned witch’s cottage on a crag and works part time as a secretary for a professor at the college. There’s also community service.
In short, she’s an introverted outcast who’s barely getting by and too often forced to venture into the city.
Notice, we haven’t even gotten to the story yet, and still haven’t.
There are real dangers that exist for Zepha. From the possibility of her probation being revoked to the threat of physical harm. What wasn’t revealed in the trial was her old name, which is all that separates her from her father finding her.
For a petite witch, her greatest protection is her magic, which has been removed. Instead, all she has are her familiars. Yes, plural. She possesses a gift for gathering them and none of them deserted her when she lost her magic. Still, there’s always the threat of eviction, the college ending her employment, and the risks each time she ventures out.
There’s actually more, but I’ll stop there. The outer layer consists of possible or indistinct threats that are remote and not considered. Until they arrive.
For Zephtasha, that comes in the form of the Wizards of Kron, despite their being gone for over five hundred years.
The Kron wizards served those who ruled the Emprensen Empire on the mainland long ago. Eventually, an emperor ceded them tiny Isle of Kron off the southeast coast. There, they were free to experiment in seclusion.
It didn’t go well, their actions helping to bring down the empire.
The Kron wizards are gone, but their island and what they left behind remain, much of it scattered. Their influence surfaces in numerous Pannulus stories like Pneuma Key, The Suffragette Discovers, Stealing Light, and more.
Thus, in a single heartbeat, Zephtasha’s life goes from difficult to spiraling out of control on one fateful night when the professor makes a shady acquisition, an artifact called the Pneumass Scepter.
—Someone had to have sewn her throat closed. Swallowing was no longer possible. Her head-shake, a slow motion affair, was still too fast to comprehend. “This … this isn’t safe, Professor.”
The sparkle in his distraction remained. Comprehending her words didn’t. The misconception about Professor Spillhaven, which was based on his appearance, was that he was stodgy.
Oh no. Not at all. His passions made him a risk taker. “It’s extraordinary, is it not?”
“You aren’t hearing me, Professor. There’s a wrongness coming off it in waves. Can you not feel it?”
“Fear not, my dear, no one will ever know of your involvement here.”
“That isn’t what I’m talking about!” He was near impossible to communicate with when he was enamored of a new find. She pointed. “There … there’s something wrong with it”
“Wrong with it? Where? I see nothing. It’s immaculate.”
“That doesn’t alarm you?”
“It happens. The right circumstances, the right—”
“Professor, it’s evil.”—
From this point forward, the story is free to build upon the layers. Given all that I’ve mentioned here, when drafting, it was virtually impossible to not have considerable conflict and tension at every turn from the outset. The inciting event, then, compounds Zepha’s existing problems and causes more—a lot more.
A life full of threats, is for Zephtasha, and any other heroine I’ve written, a life stranded in a rowboat in the middle of the ocean—before the problems begin.