It’s not uncommon for writers to play things safe with their characters, giving them easy obstacles to overcome and setting them up as dream characters that all the readers want to be. It’s not uncommon, but it’s often very boring. Playing things safe means that the story’s usually not very tense or dramatic and the characters end up being flat caricatures or simply reader avatars. When you want to get serious about writing a story, you’ve got to make your characters suffer a little bit. Knock them around, give them something they really have to fight to overcome, give them flaws that cause them to make mistakes. Your characters are tough, don’t baby them.
This was the lesson I learned that took me from just tooling around in Word for fun and taking the first step towards becoming a serious author. Now, let’s be fair: a straightforward adventure story with fun characters is fine, but even those have obstacles along the way and the better authors find ways to make you question whether the characters are going to make it through or not. Even Indiana Jones came very close to being crushed to death by a trap and you really wondered just how he could possibly make it out alive. He does, of course, because they made more movies, but at the time you’re not thinking about that. So, you’re presented with two options: write well enough that your readers aren’t thinking about just how easy things are for your main characters or just laying into them so much that things are never easy. For the Martian Empire Trilogy, I went with the latter.
Instead of Kara [the main character] going on a fun adventure, things get dark. Her situation is actually pretty bad and she even considers just ending it all when things take a particularly nasty turn. Fate intervenes, of course, because otherwise the book would have been pretty short. But even when things get better, Kara is involved in an accident while searching through the ruins of city and winds up breaking her leg. I won’t go on, but bad things keep happening. That’s not necessarily how you’ll want to do things, and I’m not even sure that that was really the best way for my own story to go, but that was the lesson I learned and I ran with it. Kara really got beat up pretty bad, but she survived, because deep down she had inner strength and resolve that allowed her to roll with the punches and not give up even when things were at their worst.
But maybe she doesn’t, maybe she gives up somewhere along the way and that opens up a whole host of new opportunities for the story. There are no hard and fast rules for how your characters will react or how their arcs will end, because that’s all down to the kind of story you want to write. The one important thing to keep in mind is that there’s more to your characters than writing the people you always wanted to be.