Thursday, October 7, 2010

You want me to do WHAT?

One of the more interesting parts of plotting is getting the characters somewhere they don't want to go. In extreme cases, somewhere no-one with any sense is going to want to go. It's got to be done with care, because otherwise you end up killing suspension of disbelief (as the infamous rejection letter goes, "Suspension of disbelief does not mean hanging it by the neck until dead.")

Sometimes it's easy: your average hero will ignore the ten foot warning signs and the assorted Omens of Doom if his girlfriend is in there. On the other hand, he's not going near the Fortress of Ill Repute unless there's a bloody good reason. Said fortress being well supplied with Damsels of Negotiable Affection is usually good enough.

Absent a kidnapped sweetheart or a supply of Damsels of Negotiable Affection, you - the author - are going to have to convince your recalcitrant hero to get himself to the Fortress of Ill Repute so he can defeat the villain and the appropriate happily ever afters can happen. (Okay, if you're writing science fiction it's probably a Spaceship or Planet of Ill Repute, but you get the idea, all right? I think in weird metaphor and appalling allegory). This often turns into something of a battle of wits - and boy is it ever embarrassing when said hero outwits you.

I write in a kind of fugue state, okay? The number of times I've written something and come back later and thought "I wrote THAT?" - good, bad, and mind-boggling - isn't something I care to count because I ran out of appendages a long time ago.

Anyway. Here I am, carefully arranging all my obstacles so my hero's only viable choice is to go to the Fortress of Ill Repute, so the sneaky sod doubles back and heads home, figuring that the villain isn't as bad as all that, and besides, his home isn't in any danger. Now what? It's not exactly feasible for the villain to kidnap his girlfriend, especially since the hero so far hasn't shown interest in intimate relationships with anything, although I'm not that sure about the horse... And he's right. His home isn't in any danger. It's miles away, bad terrain, and bloody difficult to get to.

Random raiding parties doesn't cut it either. Who's going to raid in Back Of Nowheresville when they can have the riches of Fantasy Utopiana for a lot less trouble?

Well, let's see. He is a hero, therefore posessed of a certain amount of honor. He won't turn down an old friend who travels all that difficult bloody terrain, trailing raiding parties, natually, because the old friend has a Secret the villain would kill to possess... Or possibly the old friend is a Secret (See Diana Wynne Jones: Tough Guide to Fantasyland for more detail about this sort of thing). Or maybe old friend is actually old mentor's daughter and went looking for hero because her daddy said to find him if she ever needed help.

Suddenly, not only is the hero in danger, so is his home, and his family. Plus, he's got this person he's honor bound to help, and some kind of questy thing. Yay. I've got the stubborn SOB out of his comfort zone. Now I can harass and push him to where I need him to go, frustrate him into making mistakes, and generally make his life miserable unless he does things my way. Even then, it's not going to be nice, but it does get him out of the whole deal more or less intact, with a girlfriend as well.

I admit this is something of a gross oversimplification, but tactics like these work for me. A hero's greatest strength is also their biggest weakness because you, the author, can use it against them in ways they can't defend against. Although you can expect them to complain bitterly in your dreams, and demonstrate a remarkable command of language unbecoming to a hero.

How do you deal with unruly characters and get them to do what they need to do?


Brendan said...

I have just being puzzling over something that I think comes close to this dilemma you face. How do I get a 12 year old boy to talk to a 12 year old girl?

MataPam said...

Their teacher assigns them to a group project.

Their parents are threatening to marry each other.

They take lessons in the same dojo.

Dare from a friend.

Much will depend on the society they are in, and which social tier each of them inhabits. And the availability of other people of their own gender to talk to.

MataPam said...

Oh, and what I do to get my Characters to behave? I negotiate.

My main guy has now agreed to cooperate if I don't kill the girl friend in the previous book. Her death is now a ploy by the Spy Master, who will pop her out when ol' Super Spy needs to be badly distracted. In some future book. In fact he was so delighted, he agreed go full bore on the pathos and then be complete bamboozled, and spend a whole book digging out of the hole is own little Mata Hari put him in.

Holy C***, somebody call the men with the long sleeved white shirts to come take me away.

No, wait. I couldn't type, I'd go insane(r)!

Daniel Casey said...

Brendan, having watched the local hoodlums play this game, usually it works best if you give the girls the bats and ball-gloves (or whatever) and then tell the boys to cope, or lose. 12 year old boys seem to have a thing against looking weak in front of their peers.

As for what I do to get the main characters to co-operate with the course of questionable sanity, well, simply put, I don't let the author know what I'm going to do to them until it's too late... *grin*

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I have the WORST trouble STAYING with the character to the end of the ride. I tend to pull back in the bad spots or the embarrassing spots.
As for getting them to do what I want... I don't even TRY. Fortunately I have the sort of characters who jump in first and ask questions later.

Kate said...


With great difficulty, unless you plan on them talking in jeers :)

Kate said...


Good points, all. I think I'll let your suggestions stand there.

So bribery works with your characters? That's good to know.

Kate said...


You don't let the author know? Now that's scary stuff. I'm going to be looking over my shoulder wondering who's actually writing the story now.

Kate said...


Your characters tend to be forces of nature - or possibly ill-nature (looking around nervously in case of Athena showing up). You don't mess with those: they'll flatten you and not even notice.

Synova said...

Patricia Wrede tells a funny story about the book _The Raven Ring_. She had a plan, they were supposed to leave town. Her characters refused.

I really like that book but after hearing that I could really see where that left turn happened. And they didn't leave town.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Because she couldn't spell.

What I tried to say Brendan, was to throw the two 12 year olds into danger. Then they'll have to talk to survive!

Kate said...


I completely believe that. Trying to rearrange reality to deal with stubborn characters who flat refuse to leave town is a pain :)

Kate said...


You mean we don't get to enjoy your typos as written? The Great God of the Internet (Tae-Po, of course) is disappointed.

We just won't mention all the offerings to the Great God that I commit.

Stephen Simmons said...

I've recently had the good fortune to be befriended by a wise (in my estimation) writer who has been in this business nearly as long as I've been (legally alleged to be) an adult. We've had a number of conversations on this topic. He is fond of saying that "you must relentlessly drive to Detroit, while acknowledging that the characters may well prefer Paris. But the *route* to Detroit isn't important, just the fact that you must eventually get there."

I find it depends on the character. Some I need only nudge, and they go right where I want them. Some have to be tricked. And some have to have every other possible course of action systematically blown t bits ...

Anonymous said...

Brendan - Have one of them do something awful to the other and then madly try to prevent them from "telling".

Brendan said...

Thanks everyone for the great ideas. So many of them too! What a creative bunch you are.

MataPam said...

On third thought, our personal difficulties with our characters might be less than helpful to our fellows.

How to get a Character in the right place? Start the story with him there. If you insist, he can conside that, in retrospect [Fill in the brilliant decision] might not have been the best idea he'd ever had.

Obligate him - enlist him in the Army. Have him sent as hostage to his father's loyalty. Give him a Grandmother-from-hell who is going to go on pilgramage before she dies, even if it kills her.

Have his girlfriend's divorced mother marry some rotter and move away. Have his own family move. Offer him money to deliever a package - enough to get the family farm out of hock and marry his childhood sweetheart.

Apprentice him to someone who has a reason to go there.

::sigh:: Promise him a really hot girlfriend if he'll just get up and go.

Kate said...


That's one sensible mentor - and yes, I've had to use the "scorched earth" method of character guidance. Fortunately not often. For some reason they resent it.

Kate said...

Grumpy Martian,

I love the name - and the suggestion is perfect for feuding 12 year olds of any gender.

Kate said...


Any and all of the above, sometimes all in the same story. Le sigh.

I guess being the kind of stubborn that gives people nightmares means I get gifted with equally stubborn characters.