Arguing with God: Making your characters do what you want (when they really don’t want to)

CD_Realistic motivation for fictional characters

I’ve been struggling with Anna.

She’s my sassy, capable and clever protagonist, and she’s about to do something Remarkably Stupid.

I’m capitalising that because it really is very, very stupid, and everyone’s warning her not to do it.

Writing a realistic plot and realistic characters is always fairly difficult. Sometimes, your characters just won’t do what you want them to, because in real life, they’d look at you with a scornfully raised eyebrow and flatly refuse.

Anna has been raising her eyebrow at me for a few weeks now and I finally realised why.

She has other, sensible, logical options.

Her story in Winter Court is a quest, but being 12 years old and notably unmagical, she has very few qualities that recommend her for this quest. She has a little training but, on the whole, it be much better, easier and safer for someone else to go. Anna isn’t an idiot. She’s not usually the one to rush off without a thought for the consequences. That’s her father. She’s the one who thinks about things, works out a plan and sticks to it. She’s the one who selects the best person for a job. She is fully aware of her own shortcomings and limitations.

But this makes for a very dull story. Anna really wants what’s at the end of this quest. So, my solution to this problem is to make it so Anna has no other choice but to go against what she’d usually do. I needed to make it so Anna has to be the one to go on this quest, even though there are many other more qualified candidates.

I slowly and feasibly erased the other candidates’ availability. 

I love lists. They’ve been my friends for a long while and hopefully will continue to be so. I veer heavily to the ‘Architect’ side of writing, so plotting out my problems and solving them one by one helps me. It may not be the best solution for everyone, but I recommend it at least be tried. My list consisted of all the people who would make better adventurers than Anna.

Then I tore them down.

  1. Trained warriors with experience of Guerrilla warfare and espionage.
  2. Volunteers for the cause, people who want to help.
  3. An individual man with great warfare experience, and a personal stake in the quest.
  4. A pair of talented warrior trainees with a thirst for glory.

My solutions:

  1. Forbidden by the monarch. The Seelie Court stands on the brink of war, the conditions of which are no one breaching the UnSeelie borders (where the quest would take them). The monarch cannot, in good conscience, send Fae Warriors to their death over a rumour and a fancy.
  2. The monarch refuses volunteer help, bans Anna from speaking of the quest to the general population. He doesn’t want any half-cocked heroes trying their luck on a dangerous mission and accidentally causing a full scale war between the two Courts.
  3. Individual man’s fiancee forbids Anna to speak of it to him, knowing full well that he will race off and try to complete the quest. The quest is dangerous and the fiancee is worried that the man will act rashly and get himself killed and/or incite war.
  4. The talented pair have taken an intense dislike to Anna because of a previous plot line and refuse to put themselves in harm’s way for something that would benefit her and grossly disadvantage them.

Suddenly, Anna’s logic is flawless (at least in the way that a 12 year old going on what is almost definitely a suicide mission can be called flawless). I was working with her to make my plot work. My massive Block of Writing-Nope vanished.

Plots are difficult and characters staying true to themselves can be even harder. Next time you find yourself in a fix with a character not doing what they’re meant to do, ask why? Why is this character refusing? Why is my gut telling me that this is completely nonsensical?

Identify the problems and work through them. Given the right circumstances, characters can do anything. Given the right motivation and scenarios, things that seem completely out of character can suddenly become very much in-character.

Go on, let me know what you think!

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