One of the recurring problems I see when I’m critiquing a story is the lack of an obstacle or nemesis. William Gibson calls it “the barrier” in his excellent book about writing titled Shakespeare’s Game. Something must get in the way of the main character’s yearning or else there is no tension and ultimately no climax. Writes Gibson: “…if Hamlet at once marches off to stab the King, what have we lost? –the play.”
It seems obvious and yet many writers create stories without an obstacle or nemesis. I do it myself. I get caught up with the main character and allow him or her free reign when I should be causing problem after problem for the poor thing. Only after a hundred pages or so, when I’m wondering why the story isn’t working, does it hit me. I’m being too nice.
We spend our lives trying to avoid creating obstacles for other people, so why should it come easy when we write? It’s scary to close the door on our main character’s desire; but if we do, if we dream up a fantastic barrier, then our hero will have to work hard to get what he or she wants, and therein will be the story.