Thursday, January 14, 2010

Push those buttons, baby

No, not those buttons. The other buttons. The hot ones.

Okay, not those hot buttons, either.

What I'm talking about are the little things that you find utterly maddening, and which anger you beyond any kind of rational level compared to whatever sets them off. For instance, if I've gone to extra effort over something for someone, and that person inconveniences me, I go from calm to nuclear between one heartbeat and the next. Another one that gives me issues is when I'm expected to follow the lead of someone who - in my highly expert and infallible opinion, of course - couldn't organize a piss-up in a brewery. I'm sure you have a few of your own little glitches like that, probably including some you don't want to admit to.

Characters need hot buttons like that, too. And stories need to push them - because that's when your lead, or your villain, or whatever, is most likely to do something irrational which triggers off the cascade that makes things worse. It helps, of course, to establish the hot buttons early, so that when they get used later readers don't wonder where the heck that came from.

I'm going to use - carrying on the theme from Sarah's post - Darkship Thieves as an example. One of Thena's hot buttons is being physically restrained, so much so that she's prepared to commit murder and mayhem, not necessarily in that order, on the person who dares tie her up. We see this in the first few chapters of the book, so it doesn't seem at all out of place when Thena goes nuclear later in the book. Of course, she's got a few other hot buttons as well, and Kit isn't exactly the most level-headed person ever, either.

Who and what else uses character hot buttons well?

p.s. Apologies for being kind of scarce and not entirely with it. It's now a week since the layoffs, and work is totally batshit insane busy. I'm not sure when things will settle down, since the backlog was impressive before this happened. Now it's more like a cliff about to land. Such is life.


C Kelsey said...

Honor Harrington seems to have hot buttons that get pushed constantly (usually resulting in a death ride for her and her ships).

Interestingly enough, I was thinking of a book this morning that I read several years ago that completely lacked anything like that. The character was written so cardboard-ey that even when his emotions were being actively described it didn't really feel like he was actually feeling them.

That book was the most frustrating thing I've ever read. Every chapter built to where you were certain that something AWESOME was going to happen in the next chapter... and nothing EVER happened. Not at all. Not in the entire book. The character got fat. That was it. And he didn't even have the good sense to be angry about the fact that it was some mysterious forest spirit that was doing it to him. Ugh. ;)

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kelsey, that sounds like an incredibly frustrating book.

I get annoyed by characters in books and movies who just react to things and never initiate action on their own.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


What an interesting topic. Now you'll have me looking for those triggers!

Anonymous said...


Why is it that they always lay off people when they have tons of work that needs to be done? You think they'd do it in response to a drop in orders/accounts or whatever.

The next step is to insist that you remaining people put in unpaid over time.

And if they get desperate, they'll hire the laid off staff as consultants for more than their salaries, but tell themselves how much they're saving on benes.

Obvious managerial stupidity is one of my hot buttons. And related to that, figuring out IRS forms is sure to send me into repeated snarling, snapping, pacing, foaming fury. I generally do the taxes when the house is completely empty, so as to avoid targeting my husband, even though it is it mostly his fault.

Anonymous said...

There, see? The very mention of the T word totally diverted that post.

Authors who endow characters with hot buttons.

Janet Evanovich. Do not call Lula fat. And not a _hot_ button, but one that sends a delighted frission of horror up the spines of readers, loan Stephanie a car. Especially a very expensive one.

Lois McMaster Bujold. Miles Vorkosigan has a few dozen "issues" just starting with being short.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Athena is, of course, sweetness and light and COMPLETELY devoid of hot buttons. :) I don't know what Kate is talking about :) :) Kit, OTOH is more wound up that a slinky in the hands of a two year old. Issues include: not wanting to be a burden on ANYONE; not wanting anyone to take care of him; and so not wanting to talk about what bothers him.
Kyrie... people acting stupidly. Tom, innocent people being hurt. Also, being asked if he ate anyone...
Of course, other writers have done it much better, but Kate started it by picking on Thena.
As for author's issues: Do not say anything about all women being victims. The term "raising consciousness" makes me foam at the mouth. Then there is a long list of other things that make my head rotate on my neck... exorcist style. Some of you know them. (Hint, they start rants.) They're not always what you'd expect. The BIGGEST argument in our twenty five years of married life, between Dan and I -- the one that almost ended in the dreaded "d" word was over comma placement. No, really.

Anonymous said...

I think Terry Pratchett does an exceptional job of giving his characters some rather unusual hot buttons that, while often humorous, fit their characters perfectly.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and matapam? For anyone who doesn't think Miles has enough "issues," there's always Mark...


Anonymous said...

And yes, Sarah, we all know that Thena is just this delicate little wallflower who has the greatest respect for any and all authority figures, and would never dare besmirch her or her father's reputation by acting the least bit "unladylike."


Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Just for the record, tangentially related to "Tom's hot buttons" and filed under "Toni Rocks!" I had never opened GTAC, because I usually read from the file on computer. And I haven't really LOOKED at book when I sign at cons, since I'm concentrating on fan getting book signed.

So, the other day I got a book to give to Robert to read, opened front page -- and the next minute was rolling on the floor laughing.

The phrase that she chose to call attention to the front page snippet... was... "Family, can't live with them. Can't eat them." The snippet is of Tom's dad on phone asking him if he ate someone.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate. Interesting topic. Its nothing something I think about deliberately, but its a great way to increase your character's depth.

I'll keep that in mind. Its also a lot of fun opening the gate on some murder and mayhem.

Nice to hear things settling a bit. Best of luck with the batsh*t. :)

Kate said...

I spoke too soon about the crazy. Found out today that my department (quality assurance) is getting subsumed into programming. This is not a good thing and I'm still a bit shell-shocked.

Sorry, but I'm not up to responding individually tonight. My buttons have all shorted out and the system is one jolt shy of catastrophic failure.

Anonymous said...


Uh, oh. That has the dreaded sound of "...and check your own work as you go, for quality assurance, but don't fall behind this revised schedule ..."

Kate, fifteen years ago my husband was working for a major oil company that was going through layoffs. After the second time he had a friend drive him to the ER because he thought he might be having a heart attack, he took a job at a smaller company for a large cut in pay. Best move of his life. Make sure you have your priorities straight. And neither Job nor Salary should top the list. Other things are more important.