Last week we talked about ethical situations in speculative fiction, and how they appear even when we might not be intending to write about them. Everything our characters do is dependent on their ethical beliefs, and when they make a move that conflicts with those beliefs, it needs to be hard for them and important to the story, or it just won’t feel valid.
Have you ever read a book review in which the reviewer complains that the protagonist behaved stupidly? It’s annoying to read something and know that the character we’re most connected to isn’t being smart. Sometimes it’s not that the character was actually stupid, but that he has done something that didn’t fit with his behavior up to that point. It generally means the author needed something specific to happen in her story and couldn’t think of a better way to drive things forward. If you’re in this sort of predicament with your characters, it might be time to slow down and think about exactly what they would or would not do. So let’s try an exercise. Write the scene as you planned to initially. Once you’re finished, open up another file and rewrite the scene, only this time, make the character choose the other option. For example, here’s a partial scene from Mad Kestrel:
She and McAvery had climbed into a longboat to be rowed to shore. She’d only looked back once, shuddering at the disorienting feeling of knowing that there was a ship where none could be seen.
“Don’t you think it would be wiser to unchain me, at least for the space of the rowing?” He jingled the manacles at his wrists in emphasis. “If I were to fall out, I’d sink right to the bottom of the bay.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
He leaned back against the gunwale, propping his shackled feet up and resting his chained hands in his lap. The plant sat next to him. “About this bounty hunter you’re afraid of. Is he a Danisoban himself? A Factor?”
“I don’t know. But he told his masters about me. Once we get Binns back, I’ll have to stay onboard ship from now on. It’s the only place I’m safe.”
“Unless he’s an ordinary person. Or someone special, like you.”
“How did you know about me?”
He shrugged. “Everyone knows what a Danisoban safe house is.”
What else did everyone know that she didn’t? It was frustrating to feel so stupid about the world she lived in.
“You escaped even though you were dunked in salt water. Makes you special. I can guess why the Brotherhood would pay well for you. If they knew you were in possession of the sanguina, they’d be pissing themselves to lay hands on you both.”…
McAvery stayed quiet for the remainder of the trip to shore, but Kestrel could feel his eyes staring holes into her. She’d kept him at arm’s length since that dreadful evening in her cabin. She felt a twinge of guilt at the memory. She knew better than to let her body rule her like that. As quartermaster, she hadn’t had the luxury of choosing a lover among the crew, for fear of being influenced against any orders the captain might offer. As the only woman aboard, it had been a matter of safety.
But now, as captain, she had even less freedom in that respect. The heat McAvery awoke in her was tempting, seductive, but she would keep her head. He wasn’t worth the risk. No matter how fast her blood pounded when he gazed at her.
Kestrel directed her rowers to drop them at the darkest stretch of beach. Once the hull scraped against the sand, Kestrel reached over with a key to unchain McAvery’s hands.
“Ah,” he sighed rubbing his wrists. “Sweet freedom.”
But what might happen if we write it a different way, having Kestrel follow an opposite ethical path?
But now, as captain, she had even less freedom in that respect. The heat McAvery awoke in her was tempting, seductive, but she would keep her head. He wasn’t worth the risk. No matter how fast her blood pounded when he gazed at her. In fact, she thought suddenly, wildly, he was too much of a risk to take along on the mission at all. What if he was wounded? If she spared a moment worrying for him, everything was lost. He was only a man. A beautiful man who made her heart leap, but men could be replaced. Even this one.
Kestrel directed her rowers to stop while they were still in deep water, sitting off the darkest stretch of beach. She stared at McAvery for a long second, memorizing his face. He stared back, the question in his eyes. At last she sighed. “I am sorry, but this is your stop.”
Before he could speak, she shoved him hard over the side and into the water. He hit the water with the softest of splashes, sinking below the waves into the darkness. Kestrel waited as the bubbles rose, watching until there were no more. She turned her face back toward shore. “Take me in, lads,” she said, not looking back.
The scene plays equally either way, since the final battle is between Kestrel and her enemy, and she could have found her way to her destination without McAvery’s help. But in order to have a reasonably happy ending, McAvery needs to live through that boat ride. Without him along, Kestrel’s mission becomes tougher, and her attempt to put herself above the criminals against whom she’s struggling becomes more murky. Even if she doesn’t entirely trust him, letting McAvery live keeps Kestrel walking the high road.
Now I want you to choose a scene in your own work, and rewrite it to have the character make a different choice. How does that change the character? Where does it drive the story? Is it perhaps better than what you had before, or worse? If you’d like to share the exercise with all of us, please do so.