Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Do Your Characters Have A Reason For Doing What They Are Doing?

I had a director for a series of productions I performed in that used to get on our cases about some really small things (but for a good reason). One of her biggest pet peeves was movement on the stage. She would scream at us for moving around on the stage too much. Now don't get me wrong. She didn't want just sticks standing around on a stage talking, but if we were to move across the stage, there damn well better be a reason why we did so. If we didn't have a reason, then we didn't move.

Authors too need to have a reason for their characters doing anything in the book, and when I say anything, I really do mean anything. I am bringing this up today because, in the last two days, I have been working with one of my authors struggling with this in one of her latest. We worked through it, but in reality the problem stemmed from not thinking it through enough before she started. Let's take the time to consider some of the major problems we see over and over again.

As I said, much of these problems stem from a lack of pre-writing work on the part of the author. We often have a great idea for some plot but really are missing some of the smaller aspects of the story that would make that plot work well. I will warn you, if you don't take the time to do that initial thinking, you will get to the point the revisions will become a gigantic task for you. This is not a small fix, but an over-haul that will extend through every element of your book.

Why do your characters want to get together? 
Why do your characters want to have sex?
Why don't your characters want to get together?

These first three questions really deal with the element of conflict vs. complication. We have spent time her on the blog talking about this in the past. In fact, I am reading one right now where frankly, I don't see why the characters aren't together. The author has never once given us a real reason why either of them doesn't want this relationship to happen. Sure, the author has had both characters say "we can't do this" but there hasn't been a reason why. Both of them are single. Both like each other. Both like to have one night stand sex together. Both do not have careers that stand in the way of getting together. So why not?

In this case, the question is why are they doing what they are doing? Without this reason, the story just becomes episodic with each chapter one or both of them saying they can't and then they go on to either have sex with each other, or turn around and, in their moment of introspection, repeat again and again, "you know we can't do this." The lack of a reason becomes tiresome.

I used to teach history and one of the things I used to point out is that everything in history is a cause and effect relationship. Things don't "just happen." The analogy I would always use is that no one would ever just pick up their entire lives and move to Fargo, North Dakota (no offense to those of you in Fargo). It isn't that we simply say one morning, "Hey, I think I'm going to give up my 6 figure salary and move to a small town city with no one I know there and open up a bakery - which, by the way, I have no experience doing."

But I can't tell you how many times I have seen this plot device used (and fail in epic proportions). there needs to be a REAL reason for someone making this type of a shift. The same would go for characters who make a move that years before they made a move to avoid. This is the scenario where a character moves back to a small town they completely hated and swore they would never return to. Again, in reality, would you say, "Hey, I hated this in the past and it was the worst experience ever so I think I am going to go back and do it all again!" Ummm, not!

I should warn authors, however, you cannot simply make up a reason. This too becomes an issue for authors. If you make up a reason that isn't real, we end up with a character with a back story that won't quit and more luggage than a suitcase store. doing this doesn't add depth to a story but an unnecessary plot element that will take up more time to clear up than it is worth. Keep it simple.

I want you this week to look at the actions of each of your characters. Do they have a reason for doing what they are doing? You might find much of your plot frustration in the middle of the book is stemming from just that lack of a reason.

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