Tuesday, October 28, 2014

You Can Bring a Horse to Water But … by Dianne K. Salerni

 © Copyright N Chadwick and licensed for reuse
 under this Creative Commons Licence
When is a snag in your plot not the fault of your plot?

When it’s really a problem of character.

Sometimes, you need your character to do something in order to move your plot along and bring it to its planned conclusion.  You know what he must do. It’s right in your outline!  But no matter how you finagle the circumstances, you can’t quite make him DO it …

This probably means you’re asking your character to behave OUT OF character, just for your convenience.  You want him to say something or do something – and he knows it’s wrong.  He knows it doesn’t make sense.  He balks like a stubborn horse.

Don’t panic! It doesn’t mean that you have to completely trash your plot.  Usually, it means you have to give up a few pre-conceived notions and look at the problem a different way. Consider your characters – and listen to them.

Once I needed a boy to commit a heinous act.  The act itself wasn’t the problem.  He’d been brought up to think he was doing the right thing – brainwashed, even. The problem was this: I needed him to gloat about it to his brother in a place and at a time when the brother could intervene and prevent it from happening.

I was so certain this kid would be boastful and defiant.  He was angry at his brother, resentful and jealous, with major abandonment issues.  But I couldn’t figure out why he would brag about his act of destruction before it was accomplished – let alone in a location where his brother could thwart him.  There was something too cartoon-villainous about it: Ah, Batman! I’ve left Robin in the next room, hanging above a pit of boiling oil, slowly being lowered to his doom! Bwa-ha-ha-ha!  Nope, it just wasn’t working.

My crit partners even expressed reservations about the boy committing the act at all.  One said, “I can’t believe he’d do it if she was going to get hurt.” (Yes, there was a she.)  And that ended up being the key to my problem.  The kid might have planned the act, set it in motion, and even believed himself capable of seeing it through – until he realized she was in danger. And then everything would change.

He wouldn’t gloat. He’d turn to his brother in horror and regret. “I made a mess of it, Mick. I didn’t mean for her to get hurt!” Those were his lines, the lines I was looking for.


The boy might have been a screwed-up, misguided “little ball of fury” – as one of my crit partners described him – but he wasn’t a cartoon villain. He cared about that girl, and to realize it, all I had to do was stop trying to shove his head in the water trough and listen to him!

14 comments:

  1. This is a great post. I tend to call this problem "2 + 2 = 5." That is, we want to reach five, so we insist that two and two equals five. We devote paragraph after paragraph to explaining why this is so. But no matter how much we write, two plus two will never equal five. The kid will never say or do that. The villains wouldn't make that decision. Two plus two always equals four.

    But you don't want four. You want five. And what so many writers forget is that we control *both* sides of the equation.

    So two and two may not make five--but two and *three* do. Change the circumstances that got you here, or even just tweak them, and the path opens to get your characters and story logically where you want them to go. It's all part of being agile as a writer, ready for whatever unexpected obstacles should stand in your way.

    Harrison Demchick
    Developmental Editor, Ambitious Enterprises

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    1. Harrison -- That's a great way to explain it! There's a way to balance any equation we come up with if we'll just stop trying to make the numbers do something they can't do. And you are so right -- it's often a very small change that's required!

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  2. Great examples. And I love the term "little ball of fury."

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    1. Yeah, that pretty much summed him up!

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  3. My characters generally do what I tell them to. But then of course you do have to spend some time setting up why they are the way they are, and earning their decisions, so to speak.

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    1. You are lucky then! My characters frequently stage revolts in the first draft. But it turns out they are always right.

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    2. I've been lucky so far. But I've only written 3 manuscripts! I fully expect to get derailed sometime soon.

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  4. Too convenient. That's one of my editor's favorite lines when working with me. :)

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  5. Interesting -- it's so irritating when authors use characters as puppets who just do whatever they must to move the story along, regardless of motivation. Good advice.

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    1. I have a few characters needing better motivation in my current first draft. Right now they are doing some things with insufficient (or contradictory) motivation. This is #1 on my Hit List for revisions.

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  6. I so can relate to this topic, when I was going through the early days of my novel "Gabriel" (Before it sold) I had this problem.

    First with Gabriel himself, because he's laid back and shy (though when he's making something he's meticulously driven) early readers thought I should have Rum (my antagonist) be the lead, but that wouldn't work because Gabriel was the center to the whole, and I had a hard time making him active without turning him into the extrovert he wasn't.

    Another thing I wanted to be really careful of was how I portrayed Rum and his gang. They're not one-dimensional. I may be dealing with rats (in the literal sense) who are often typecast as the nasty ne'er-do-wells, but they're not "cartoon villains" either.

    Since I take them as characters just as seriously and with the respect I'd give human characters I hope that translates to a sincere experience for the reader.

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    1. Yes, Taurean!! There ARE times when a person behaves out-of-character. We are all multi-dimensional people. Even a shy person will have a reason to get excited and extroverted occasionally. But you have to set it up correctly. My boy in that story was a jerk -- and angry at his brother -- but he also had a soft spot that led him to beg his brother for help instead of taunting him, which was what I thought I wanted him to do.

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    2. That's true, Dianne, but at times in the heat of revision we can forget that when we're trying to make things move (if you know what I mean)

      That are certainly moments when Gabriel needed to be assertive and when Rum (who in contrast to his friend Gabriel is direct with a prickly) has his soft side, especially to his kid sisters, and looks out for his gang (which is more of a brotherhood than a crime mob at a certain point in the story...) they're not "disposable" pawns to him.

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!