Oh No, She Didn’t!

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Last weekend I was talking with a good friend about a book we’d both recently finished reading. The writing was brilliant, and the first half of the book had promised glorious results. But somewhere along the way, something went wrong. The main character’s behavior changed, suddenly and for no discernible reason. Changed so much that I didn’t like her any longer, and didn’t want to waste any more time reading about her. The character no longer felt real to me, as if the author forced the character to do the things she did not because it was in her nature, but just to drive the story in a certain direction. At that point, it didn’t matter what nifty surprise the next chapter might have held. I had stopped believing.

David was talking yesterday about characters spinning their wheels. As he said, Faith kills someone whenever that happens (a character! Don’t get excited!) David doesn’t necessarily kill anyone, but he knows it’s time to shake things up. Time for something to happen. I completely agree. While working on Kestrel’s Dance (the sequel to Mad Kestrel), I discovered I’d gone three full chapters with nothing happening except talk. Different characters talking to each other, and tons of internal monologues, but no action. Don’t misunderstand – dialogue is vital. No one wants to read a story in which characters don’t talk to each other. But when you realize your characters have done nothing but yack at each other for the last three chapters, something’s wrong. Time for a little action to ramp things up, make those pages turn. It’s not just a question of throwing something into the mix, though. The action you choose has to be reasonable to what’s happened thus far in your story. It has to make sense. If your character has spent fifteen chapters being afraid of water, she won’t suddenly decide in chapter 16 to go whitewater rafting. How many times have you watched a scary movie and wondered why on earth the victims, who are standing on the main floor of a home, run upstairs to escape the villain? Whatever you choose to do to your characters needs to have a logical progression, a flow from prior events so that readers aren’t bounced out of the story and back into the real world.

Now’s the point where new writers will shake their heads at me and say, “But people are unreasonable! They do crazy-stupid things every day, for no reason at all. Doesn’t it make sense that people don’t make sense?” Sure it does. People are nuts. Not a week goes by that I don’t find myself in a conversation with someone bemoaning the whacked-out behavior I just witnessed while driving or in the grocery store. But stop right there for just a second…when people do foolish things with clearly no forethought, think how frustrating it is. It’s confusing and a little frightening, and we don’t particularly like it. As parents, the first thing we ask a misbehaving child is “Why did you do that?” Shucks, we stand around the water cooler at work asking the same thing about stories we saw on the news the night before. We like to understand what drives people to do what they do. We can’t control that in real life, but in fiction, we can. As writers, we must. Just because we need excitement in Chapter 12 doesn’t mean it should be random and pointless. Again, David had an excellent suggestion – ”Gee Character X is trying to do this right now; what would be the worst thing from her perspective that could happen at this very moment?” If that doesn’t work for you, or you just can’t think of what that horrible thing might be, reach out to the world around your character. What could upset the balance enough to affect the character and change things as you need them changed? If you’re still stuck, find a beta reader or a trusted friend, ask him to read your pages and tell you what happens next. My husband loves when I come strolling into his computer room with that look on my face. I don’t always use what he suggests, but sometimes an opinion from outside of my own head is all I need to knock the ideas loose.

Luckily for my endless-dialogue problem, I’d had some action events in reserve, things that would fit appropriately into an ocean-going adventure, so the change wasn’t all that complicated. And I hope that when readers get to that point, none of them will stop reading, furrow their brows, and say out loud, “What the hell?” Because the only thing I like more than people buying my book is for people to read all the way through to the end.

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7 comments to Oh No, She Didn’t!

  • “…when people do foolish things with clearly no forethought, think how frustrating it is.” Spot on, Misty. Tom Clancy (of Hunt For Red October and Patriot Games fame) once said that the biggest difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense. Think of it this way: I have lots of friends who are also named David. A couple who Nancy and I are incredibly close to have a daughter the same age as my older daughter, and they named their girl the same thing we named ours. My brother and my best friend from college married women with the same first names and then named their first-born sons the same thing. Stuff like that happens all the time. But not in books. You simply can’t have people with the same name in a book (unless it is a specific plot point) because of how confusing it would be. As writers we sometimes have to sacrifice on the “realistic” side in order to make the story work. Same thing with irrationality. Yes people do strange inexplicable things every day, but our narratives have to follow a logical path in order to be readable. We’re not writing reality; we’re writing fiction, which is an artistic and imperfect mirror of reality.

  • b d – That’s me giving two thumbs up. 😉 Don’t have much to add other than to agree and say, can’t wait to see the next Kestrel book. 😀

    I agree that you always have to have your character’s motivations in mind when writing anything that will drastically change how a reader sees that character. There really has to be a why in any action that makes sense to the reader. It’s a lot different to see someone in a cheesy horror film do something incredibly stupid/cliche and when I’m working on film scripts I try my best to make sure the people have a reason for doing what they do. Running upstairs? Why? There’s a gun cabinet up there? Good call. Too bad they’ll never reach it. Still, it’s gotta make sense for me. A character’s motivations have to make sense for me, even when I’m writing a film script.

    It’s kinda like what David has said about changing something major to cover your butt. The character is the same way. If you find yourself changing the character in a major way that makes no real sense just to have something happen in a scene then you’ve done something wrong. That’s usually the time when my characters speak to me and say, nu-uh, I wouldn’t do that.

    Huh…I guess I did have something to say. 😉

  • Love it, Misty! I totaly agree. It must all be logical — at least according to the motivations that we have built into the character.

  • Beatriz

    The book has a name? A NAME?????????

    ~runs around in happy circles, squealing with glee~

    Oh. Yeah. Nice post.

    As a reader, I find it distracting when a character suddenly does something not in keeping with the character. It will yank me out of the story PDQ. Sometimes I’m left with the feeling that I’m a dummy, that I missed the foreshadowing that allowed Character X to do Y. After all, the author is All Knowing, isn’t (s)he?

    I don’t enjoy feeling like a dummy. Odds are, I won’t buy another one of the author’s books if that’s how I feel.

  • Beatriz said The book has a name? A NAME????????? ~runs around in happy circles, squealing with glee~

    I’m sorry, darling, I thought you knew. Bad me. Now stop running in the office – you’ll bang your knee on a file cabinet!

  • Thank GOD things have to make sense in fiction 🙂 It gives me great relief to know, as an author, I have the power to give every character (major and minor) a reason to do what they do. Now if only I could have that power over the drivers in Atlanta rush hour traffic…

  • Sarah

    I love that book. Mrs. Massey was my librarian in Middle School. She inspired me to finish my book. I did it, and now I’m getting it published. Its sad she wont be bad for the March Madness book contest. Which I won! She always knew my name and face when I came to see her. She made it, and I’m not her behind her either.