Being the relatively educated and articulate lot of humans that we are, we tend to talk a lot about character: both building and being people of integrity. Unfortunately no hard ground is won without tilling, and no battle gets taken without a fight. That's the truth of life, isn't it?
Trials are what shape our personal character and build those traits into us which sustain us until the next layer gets ripped off and opened to the air. Then it begins again.
These tests are designed with a singular purpose: to push us to the limits of our current being and then traveling hopefully alongside us into the next level of who we are designed to be. It happens to our character on a regular basis. It ought to happen in the lives of our characters as well. So how do we allow our fictional characters to experience the 'real' of life without crossing the line into the dreaded overly dramatic realm of purple prose?
2. Every great story that involves character transformation involves high stakes, whether public or personal, or both. When someone tells you a great story in which you're hanging on their every word, it's either because you simply have to know what happened in the situation, or what happened to the person(s) involved. We get invested in a story because we get invested in either a cause / purpose or a person / character.
Give your characters a hill to climb, a conflict to overcome, or a goal to reach and you will have your stakes. While setting them along on their journey pull the reader into the inner dialogue and struggles of your characters and you have the benefit of the one-two punch.
At the suggestion of a friend I've been reading Donald Maass' The Breakout Novelist. In Chapter 2 he talks about Escalating Stakes, the essential question being: How could things get worse? He explains better than I:
"Putting your characters through hell requires being willing to make them suffer. That can be hard to do, but consider this: being nice does not engender great drama. Trials and tests are the stuff of character building, of conflict. Ask yourself, who is the one ally your protagonist cannot afford to lose? Kill that character. What is your protagonist's greatest physical asset? Take it away. What is the one article of faith that for your protagonist is sacred? Undermine it. How much time does your protagonist have to solve his main problem? Shorten it.
Push your characters to the edge, whatever that means for them, and you will push their personal stakes to the limit." - Donald Maass, The Breakout Novelist
But wait, you say. That's too much like engineering a story-purposely making it dramatic and full of conflict just to keep a reader reading. What if that's not true to the story I'm trying to tell? Life is boring and ordinary sometimes, you say. Why can't my fiction have pieces of real, ordinary and boring in it?
Well, it can of course. But it's how you do boring that counts. There can be inner struggle built into the mundane. There can be escalating conflict creeping into life's day to day activities, but something has to keep that reader turning pages.
Every reader has plenty of the boring and mundane in their own everyday lives. They're not reading to enter into someone else's boring and mundane life. They're reading, listening to music, going to a movie, taking in a show, going to an art gallery, etc. to enter into another world - an experience that shocks, thrills, inspires or causes them to think differently at the end of it. The challenge a novelist faces is to find the extraordinary in the mundane and pull it out, word by word. Out of the depths, out of the shadows, and not necessarily even into the light - at least, not on page one, but out nonetheless.
I heard a great quote once. It said, simply: "Character is what you do in the dark."
It isn't the things we do and say publicly that determine what kind of a person we are. We've seen this all too well in two-faced politicians, actors, public figures, friends, bosses, spouses...the list goes from the minors to the majors. People say one thing and do another. Hypocrites, we like to call them. The truth is, they are people just like us who have yet to succumb to the character training life continually provides.
The choices we make when no one is looking (in the dark) determine what kind of a person we are and will be. The little things. The mundane things. The ordinary things. Your characters can certainly have road to damascus experiences and those can create necessary, sweeping climax scenes in your novels. But real change also happens subtly, every day, and this can't be overlooked. A balance between the two makes for great lives, and great stories.
"Real" fiction is therefore not the oxymoron it seems to be at first glance. It's a combination of factors, resulting in the reality of the human condition being told through story. And it doesn't have to be 'our' story, it just has to be real and believable (yes, even if your setting is fantasy or sci-fi or thriller). The believable part can be in the emotions of the characters or the obstacles they have to overcome.
So go have fun painting characters and don't be afraid to use their trials and greatest fears to pull them (reluctantly, if necessary) through their starting point and into the person they're meant to be. Your readers will thank you... by reading :)