Saturday, April 9, 2011

Character Decisions- Out of Your Hands

So one thing that really bothers me when reading a book is the decision making process many characters go through.  Getting into a good book and then getting thrown off by a totally random decision a main character makes is a cardinal sin in my book.

A very self-absorbed character sacrifices himself to save another. A loyal follower suddenly betrays the leader with no lead-up. A loner suddenly joins up with the main party after having stated he/she wanted nothing to do with them. I watched Your Highness last night, and Natalie Portman’s character, after expressing extreme distaste for the protagonists, suddenly joins up with them. It’s poor writing that panders to convenience rather than realism and I don’t appreciate it.

There are a couple of very important things to consider in this particular area.
  1. Plan ahead when making a new character. If you know that your character is going to have to lead a revolution, don’t make them afraid of crowds, indecisive, or generally introverted. It may seem like the right call to have a brooding and mysterious hero, but only if it suits the story. It’s far easier to have a misunderstood hero that wants to help but just doesn’t know how than a hero that has no heroic traits.
  2. Don’t force a decision because it seems like the most expeditious way to go. Your original plan may be for the hero to take a certain path, but sometimes allowing them to make the wrong choice that is more true to character can allow them to fail and realize they need to change their view. This leads to more open interpretations of his actions down the road and can let you take that original path later with a more well-rounded character. I’ve seen too many books have an incomplete hero because the author forced him down paths that he clearly wouldn’t take. This weakens not only your character, but your story as a whole. If you want your character to rush off to the aid of a village in trouble, but have thus far shown your character to be very greedy and self-absorbed, let him walk away and create a scenario where he gains from saving the town. This way he stays in character, the story progresses as it needs to, and your character may begin to enjoy people relying on him. Bam, he’s suddenly on the path to being a better person.
  3. Let the story evolve. This hearkens back to my last point. A good story can take on a mind of its own, and if you don’t let it evolve, it will fall flat. I’ve found many times in my writing where my plot outline did not take important things into consideration such as a character interaction I didn’t necessarily see coming at the beginning. Instead of suffocating that interaction and pushing forward, I let it evolve and my characters became better friends, which led to a stronger sense of camaraderie later in the book.
  4. Take yourself out of the equation. Your story isn’t about you; it’s about the characters you created. You are giving them a backdrop and a general plot for them to follow, but most of what happens is up to them. Step outside yourself and imagine you were they. Take out any of your preconceived notions of who they should be and see them as they do. Forget information they don’t know yet. Making decisions based on knowledge they don’t have yet is infuriating. Just because you know exactly where the character should go doesn’t mean they do. Let them figure it out or have them ask around until someone tells them. Having characters constantly guessing correctly is moronic, childish, and quite honestly insulting to the reader.

Writers tend to like to have total control in their book. They don’t like people telling them their ideas are crap, so having one of their own characters tell them how they would act seems impossible to them. Keep in mind; although you made the character, their personality needs to shine through. You gave them the personality for a reason. Let them be how they should be. Your story will thank you.


  1. Amen!

    I can't tell you enough how many writers make this mistake - not only in fantasy but all genres. I guess the selfish guy can save the day...if and only if it is important in some way. Most writers won't lead up to this "decision" because they want it to surprise the reader. True. But if it's left unresolved then it's a terrible ploy. Seems easy, but most people don't understand this.

    So, I suppose it can be done but it has to be done right and for good reason. Oh, and do tell us (the readers) why a loyal follower betrays his leader, and don't tell me it's for the money,power or for love. I've seen it before. In HP people betrayed the wizarding world either because they were under the influence of the Imperiius Curse or acted of their own accord. The true skill in this is figuring out who's lying and who's not?

    That is a brilliant reason and raises so many good questions.

  2. Exactly! I'm cool with surprises, but only if done well and with intent. Popping a betrayal on the reader for no really good reason is a terrible waste of a book. Characters changing and making decisions they wouldn't make earlier is pivotal in a good story, but only if it's done over time and gives reasons for their transformation.
    Han Solo is a perfect example of a greedy character helping out not because he felt obligated to some higher cause, but because he wanted money and a girl (and I guess for Luke not to die but whatever). Over time, he began to realize that he wanted to help out, but that came over the course of all three movies and wasn't just dropped on the audience without reasons. Absolutely masterful!