“How are they going to solve it?”
I enjoy challenging my characters with puzzles. Readers get a kick out of it, too.
Puzzles challenge us to progress, putting our intellect and skills to the test to reach a goal. We either achieve the reward, or suffer the pain of failure. The surprise at the end is just icing compared to the growth we receive.
Authors can employ these same principles of growth to their characters, and illustrate them to their readers. In order for stories to continue, characters must grow — or the author must kill the character, resulting in a tragedy.
To illustrate how these puzzles work in fiction, read below.
Mysteries and Riddles: Challenge the Wit
Mystery authors are experts at leaving clues that challenge the reader’s wit. It’s also essential to challenge the character’s wit. If a character already has all the answers, why would he or she need to look for the clues? Just skip all that and write a courtroom drama, with all the bad acting that somehow wins an Oscar.
Challenging the reader’s wit helps them grow along with the character. I believe readers of mystery develop a keener sense of discernment, or maybe they’re just being paranoid of others, having been influenced by an author’s work.
I included the riddle puzzle here because, much like a mystery, riddles have clues that point to their answer. Alice in Alice in Wonderland came across many riddles and puzzles, for example.
Confrontations are a puzzle where the character is pushed to put the pieces of their experience together and answer: fight or flight. The question becomes, “What will she do? Fight her fear, or run away again?”
The purpose of confrontation is to bring a character to the brink of destruction, where it’s imperative to choose to push through and win, or give up and die.
In the classic tragedy, the hero that dies at the end dies because they failed to conquer their fears — usually earlier in the story. When confronted with the reality of their consequences, their story ends, usually in death or exile.
In order for a character to win at the point of confrontation, they must have grown earlier in the story. In the hero’s tale, this is accomplished through learning a lesson and then applying it at the point of confrontation.
For example, when a character is confronted with truth, they must either accept it and win (growth), or accept it and lose (death).
Mazes and Labyrinths
A labyrinth is a series of challenges to reach a destination. That destination can be the defeat of an enemy, finding an item, or learning a life-changing lesson. The challenges a character faces in the labyrinth should reflect their fears, strengths, and weaknesses.
For the hero, they must overcome their fears and weaknesses with their strengths.
For the tragedy, they will succumb to overpowering strengths that represent their fears and prey on their weaknesses.
A maze is a challenge for the character to find their way out of a situation. That situation can be a physical maze of walls, or it can be a hypothetical one, such as a child lost in a crowd.
The character that is presented with the maze can have a fear of getting lost, a habit of never asking for directions (or help, or is just plain arrogant and the gods want to punish him).
The hero will find a way out, while the tragic death causes the character to be lost forever – physically, or in their own personal hell.
Physical puzzles are great ways to create excitement, suspense, and present danger. They can be applied with the other puzzle types, thereby enhancing the scene.
In the physical puzzle, the character’s abilities and skills are challenged, by moving objects, finding hidden keys to open locked doors, or taking a leap of faith across a dark chasm.
The hero will survive and conquer the puzzle. The tragic ending will have the puzzle defeating the character, usually for their arrogance in thinking they were prepared.
A logic puzzle challenges a character’s intellect, and the the reader’s. Authors can employ this situation to reveal how well a character works with a set of rules. The hero will work with the rules, while the tragic heroine will break the rules and be punished.
I enjoy word searches, crosswords, and guessing games. Characters can be challenged with word puzzles as well, either in the physical sense, or through memorization.
This can be illustrated by the antagonist misleading the protagonist. The reader may be shouting in their head, “Don’t believe him! He’s a liar!”
Trivia puzzles challenge a character’s memorization, and even the readers. A character can’t turn the page back, and readers may find it challenging to look for what happened a hundred pages ago.
This is the perfect opportunity to create plot twists, and challenge how well the character (and reader) can recall certain events.
You can punish the character for answering incorrectly, or even answering correctly.
For example, if the antagonist asks a question, and doesn’t like the truthful answer the protagonist gave him, the antagonist can attack the protagonist — a punishment. Should the protagonist be victorious that victory is a reward.
Pattern recognition is a key to success. Present your character with a pattern of behavior or events, and see how they respond.
Do they continue to run from them? Do they finally learn to solve the puzzle? Has their intelligence increased because they now can recognize the pattern in other situations, and thus know what to do?
If you’re writing a tragedy, pattern recognition must not succeed; the hero must fail to recognize the pattern, and thus be punished for his failure.
If you’re writing a hero’s tale, then the hero must learn the patterns and thus be presented with them – and conquer the puzzles with increasing ease.
Use Puzzles Effectively and Wisely
Puzzles are an effective tool to develop yourself, your readers, and your characters. They can also be the most enjoyable and memorable parts of a story, because when your readers grow from your reading, that’s what they’ll remember most in their hearts and minds.