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In both my last writing project and my current one, I have found an unexpected problem. Both tales are focused on a single character and their personal journey, but both tales are also set in the middle of epic wars and battles. The characters are involved in the conflicts, but because the story is about them and not the epic setting in which they exist, by the end of the tale they could have been removed and things would have played out essentially the same.

My proofreader brought this up as a problem, and I agree. However, simply having the characters change the outcome of the wars or battles which they are in is neither the point of the story, nor even possible in most cases.

I need to find a way to tell the story focused on the characters, and not have the reader wondering about the wars or battles going on.

How can I do that?

  • Let me confirm, your characters are involved in the conflicts, but those conflicts do not affect the plot? There are many wartime stories in which protagonist wouldn't care less about the war and, eventually, goes through unscathed - is your story like that? – Alexander Aug 2 at 17:11
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    @Alexander Not exactly. My characters DO care about the war, and are even invested in stopping it, but in the end create no change whatsoever. The war continues on as if they were never there. However, the war is merely a subplot, while the main plot is about the characters' journeys as they are affected by the war. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Aug 2 at 17:14
  • Characters do not need to be in center of events and make great contribution to the war. Not everyone gets to be Aragorn or Frodo. Showing the war though the eyes of a regular soldier is also quite an art. – Alexander Aug 2 at 17:21
  • @Alexander That's what I'm trying to do. My characters are common soldiers (one is even a civilian). My readers have brought up this issue before though, so I would like to know what I can do to avoid the same criticism again. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Aug 2 at 17:36
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    Is your genre Fantasy (or similar)? Do your readers expect your characters to become heroes? In "Saving Private Ryan", no one expects Tom Hanks' character to slay Hitler at the end. I admit it may be harder to set reader's expectations straight in non-historical fiction. – Alexander Aug 2 at 17:49
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If removing the frame does not affect the story, then remove it.

If the story lacks, then harness the frame.


Case I. There is a disconnect between frame and story

The epic tale of wars is a frame to your story. In principle the frame set some basic constraints to your plot. In your case, during a war time there may be scarcity of food, there may be heightened social tension, and there may even be the ever lurking shadow of death hitting all the characters near and dear to the MC.

In other words, the frame serves a purpose, and the purpose is to give the reader a reference to sustain their immersion in your story. It gives them a world around your characters, and provides clues and cues as to the characters intentions, dreams, and choices.

If the frame has no impact on the characters whatsoever, then the reader will feel the presence of two distinct stories: your main story, and the background story. They will pick the more interesting of the two, and dedicate less attention to the other. I suspect this is what happened here.

A solution is to drop the frame. Another possibility is to rethink your plot to connect it to your frame.

Case II. There are two parallel stories

It is also possible that you have a very good connection between the frame and the story. However a frame is merely a background picture and as such it moves at a significantly lower speed and with a greater lack of details compared to the main story. If both stories move at the same speed and with equal amount of details, then again your have two parallel stories. If this is the issue, a simple solution is to blur the frame. Give some references, but skip intermediate steps, summarize events briefly, in a dismissive manner. Show the reader that things have happened but that you as author did not quite give them as much importance as your main plot.

Case III. There is no story

Finally, even with a well connected frame, which remains static in the background, you may still have a very stiff story. Imagine a minimal plot, full of long descriptions of irrelevant details, plodding through the narrative at a slug pace. Three pages in, and you may wonder what happened around that interesting set of epic wars that the author just mentioned in the passing.

In this case, the frame is there to help you. You have epic wars and the characters are involved in them. They may not change the course of wars, but they will have some intense experiences, deep inner conflicts, and even traumas. Enrich your plot with these elements at the intersection of the frame and the main story, and drag them into your story to create more tension.

For instance, send one character to the front, and keep the other in the safety of their home. Get one character to develop trench-trauma. Or make one into a heavy smoker after their have been on the battlefield as a way to hide the profound sense of guilt of having killed someone in cold-blood. The possibilities are endless.

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    Awesome answer. I seem to have two parallel stories, and thanks to you, I now know how to handle it. Thanks! – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Aug 2 at 16:28
  • What about the war being a metaphor for the characters or events? The stories may be unrelated, but still impactful – Andrey Aug 2 at 20:40

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