6 min read

How to more effectively throw rocks at your characters (in prose fiction)

I have a bad habit as a writer: I am not mean enough to my protagonists. I challenge them, but I have rarely made it personal. I have rarely made it serious enough that they have to do something they would rather not. I do all of these things at times—but haven't made a point of doing so consistently. I think of this as throwing rocks at my character for reasons.

Coincidentally (maybe not...), I also don't write a lot of introspection. That includes Meaningful Description, where what is described, how it is described, or both says something about the protagonist. That's my other bad habit: I write concrete actions and descriptions without reference to the character.

These are fixable in post, if I know that's what I'm looking out for. Now I know.

The reason to throw rocks and to write introspection, I think, is to draw out the character in a visible way:

  1. Throwing rocks shows how far they'll go for what they want.
  2. Introspection shows you what they want and why.

These devices work best together. Throwing rocks forces your protagonist to change, and introspection makes it clear that they are changing. I'm going to explore each technique in order, then give one idea on how to bring the two together.

Throwing rocks

I think the reasoning behind throwing rocks is clear enough, but if not, go read or listen to Write Your Screenplay on raising the stakes (step 4). The question is what kind of rocks to throw.

Say your protagonist wants a staple remover. "Suddenly an asteroid is headed toward the planet" is going to make this harder, so it counts as a rock. But it need not make things harder in a way that is useful for the story you are telling. It needs to be something that the protagonist can address, but the only way they (think they) can address it, sucks for them. It's emotionally difficult to address, not merely "inconvenient but whatever that's fine I guess." Again, Write Your Screenplay on raising the stakes (step 5) is great on this, and I have shamelessly stolen the staple remover example from there, because it's a great example.

Specifically, it should probably be emotionally difficult in a way that forces your character to grow in some more or less consistent direction. That means throwing rocks that match the direction. Say your protagonist's arc is about getting over her mysophobia (germaphobia). That's what you planned and it works for her and the story you want to tell, or that's what has emerged from writing her. If that's her arc, you probably want to throw a bunch of challenges at her that force her to touch bugs and dirt and poop and dead bodies and so on. You're going to throw a shape of rock specific to your protagonist and her arc.

The last thing is that you ideally want to throw rocks you've set out in advance. That is: Foreshadow your rocks when possible. "Hey, look at this awful stinky trash dump Carol drives by on the way to work," and "Hey, look, Carol's freaking out over this dirt on her welcome mat, she really hates touching dirt and grime." Then when Carol has to chase her staple remover to the trash dump, you already know this is going to suck for Carol, and you're feeling the tension going into the trash dump scene.

Remember, of course—you don't have to do all that setup in a first draft! You don't have to predict or remember that all this stuff should come up in advance. You can fix it in post, if you need to. Don't let worrying about forgetting it stop you from throwing sufficiently large boulders at your characters.

But throwing rocks on its own is, I think, not enough when writing prose fiction. You also want introspection.


The key thing about introspection is that you are building on top of the concrete actions—showing and potentially telling in addition to showing through objective description what the character wants and (part of) why.

In theory, the reader can infer what the protagonist wants from what they're going after, but in prose this isn't the best option. If you're writing a script for a visual medium like film, showing is often all you can reasonably do. The thing is that in those visual media, your reader is going to see more of the character and have far more information to use. In writing, you can give objective descriptions (like a camera would give) that convey similar ideas, and some stories do. However, unless you are explicitly writing under that constraint, i.e. doing a bit, you probably don't want more than that, because you have better options.

Ellen Brock gives some excellent examples and Hello Future Me goes into great detail about the options, but in summary, introspection is prose that shows or tells you any or all of these three things about your protagonist:

  1. The way they think.
    1. How does their narration feel? How do their explicit thoughts (often in italics) sound? What language do they use "in their head" in each category? Do they use metaphors, and if so, what metaphors come to mind?
    2. Where does their mind go first in reaction to things? Why do they think they're doing what they're doing? What do they remember? What comes to mind? When Carol sees dirt, how does she cope?
      1. By going to anger and blame, which damn fool's fault is this, I swear I'm going to clean that Susan's clock?
      2. By going to paranoia, I bet it was that Susan, it has to be Susan, but I don't know, she thinks she's so smart getting one over on me this awful way, but I'm going to find out?
      3. By going to anxiety, oh no, I'm going to have to deal with that, aren't I, I can't, I just can't, PANIC?
      4. By going to depression, I guess that's how that welcome mat is now, that's the way of the world, I guess I'll just step over it?
      5. By going to loneliness, if only someone were here to take care of this for me, a husband or a wife, but I have no one, woe is me?
      6. By vacillating between a few of these reactions? Or some other reaction entirely? (Maybe you have ideas!)
    3. Is there a running theme in the way they think, the metaphors, how they react to things? Maybe for instance they have a theme of bird-related metaphors. Maybe they also have a theme of panicking in response to things. Those two themes go well together if you think of birds as panicky—which idea also could be shown directly in the story.
  2. How they interpret the world.
    1. When Carol hears that her neighbor is a garbage man, what does that mean to her? Does it mean to her that he's a disgusting barbarian who belongs in the garbage he carries? Does it mean that he's a wonderful guy who takes care of the problems she can't? Something else?
  3. How they interpret their emotions.
    1. Why does Carol think she is angry in this situation? She blames someone or something for it implicitly if not explicitly—who or what exactly? It's good to get clear about exactly what she thinks the reason is.

Using these options is better than using only simple objective description, because you have the option of using them, which makes an absence of introspection ambiguous.

Because you have the option of showing us a character's internal experience directly, and telling their thoughts and wants, if you don't do this then it's ambiguous. If you're avoiding introspection on purpose, that's fine, you're doing a bit. If you're not, it is often better to use it. If you don't use it, the reader's liable to wonder in the back of their head: Huh, so I think Carol doesn't like dirt, and I think it's because she's afraid of germs, but it's not in the text, maybe she just hates cleaning, maybe there's going to be a surprise reveal about this. And because the protagonist's motives—their wants and needs—are unclear, it's going to be hard to connect with their motives. So, you want to use introspection, because it will make the stakes clearer.

(I owe this point about the importance of clarity to Shaelin Bishop, who points this out often and clearly, and to the Kingslingers podcast, where the hosts made a similar point. (I think it was during their reading of book 3, The Waste Lands.) Scott Daly and Matt Freeman pointed out in an episode how Stephen King uses a device sometimes to directly tell you, this is how things are, you don't have to worry that this is the wrong story or just this character's biases or whatever, this is True. "Somehow s/he knew that..." among other more series-specific devices. And he uses this device because it obliterates that nagging worry that I don't understand what's going on, so that the reader can focus on what's going on.)

Bringing the two together

A nice idea I got from Diane Callahan, which uses both techniques, is to end each scene by setting up the next scene and the next conflict. This uses both of our techniques together: Setting up the next conflict requires throwing a rock at your character and writing introspection such that we understand the significance of the rock to the character. I've tried this on a scene recently and I think it was the strongest ending of any scene I have written for that story.