There is a little book that sits on my desk and I consider it to be one of my secret weapons when it comes to honing the craft of writing. It’s compact and filled to the brim with great advice from writing dialogue, structuring scenes, creating characters, story pacing and much, much more.
Each section covers a different topic and is color coded so that you can easily navigate towards the topic you want to explore or need help with. One of the sections on CHARACTERS stood out to me as the example to author provided is seen so often in books and film. I even think that I’m guilty of it. But audiences are getting tired of seeing this kind of lazy writing. I’ll let Mr. Smith do the explaining as he puts it best.
The following is an excerpt from The Writer’s Little Helper: Everything You Need to Know to Write Better and Get Published, by James V. Smith, Jr. :
“Don’t go into the basement.
Why do some characters do things that most sane people would never dream of doing? Warning: don’t allow your characters to do stupid things.
In a story where the screen is literally bathed in blood after a series of basement murders, why would any story’s character, after hearing a strange noise, open the door, and call out, “who’s there?” And go down?
And why does a brilliant, competent lady cop rush into a fight against half a dozen black hat, black belt bruisers without even calling first for backup? Don’t these people in the movies ever go to the movies?…
When you pull a stunt like that, readers don’t like it. If you treat readers like dopes, they get the last word. They can shut you down by shutting your book.
So anytime a character encounters a terrible situation, the predicament ought to have been logically foreshadowed as an outcome of previous events. No matter what choice the character makes under duress, a reader should be able to conclude without straining credulity that the character has proven himself capable of that decision by his actions in previous, less stressful situations or by his nature, which the writer already has at least hinted at.
Having said all that, I added a caveat: don’t rule out illogical behavior.
The huge mistakes that fictional characters make contribute to the very best stories of our times. If Ishmael had heeded a fortuneteller’s warning not to go aboard a whaling vessel, you’d have had no Moby Dick to vex him at sea and you in school.“
This having been said, I am extremely guilty of having characters make stupid mistakes. Maybe it seemed plausible to me at the time or maybe I didn’t think things through all the way. Sometimes it takes a second set of eyes on your work to bring this to your attention. And even when that second set of eyes does bring it to your attention, you may not always agree with their suggestion.
I’m asking you to consider it. If you’re character’s behavior seemed out of place to someone who is editing, proofreading or beta-reading your story, at least give it some thought. Because it most likely will be obvious to the rest of your audience. You may come to find that what you’ve already written really does make the most sense. Or you may come to find that your character really wouldn’t have done such a thing.
Why is this important?
The decisions that your characters make shape the story. Just like James Smith said above, characters do sometimes make stupid mistakes. For example, did you know that when human beings are being chased, we tend to run upstairs rather than outside? We do it. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen it done it so many horror flicks. But I think that’s what he means when he says “don’t rule out illogical behavior.”
I consider myself to be a somewhat intelligent person. Do I make dumb mistakes? All the time! Do I sometimes speak out of turn or put my foot in my mouth? Absolutely. Human beings aren’t cardboard cut-outs nor should your characters be. We are complex, emotional beings with many different wants, needs, goals, aspirations, etc. This is why it’s very important to know who your characters are when writing a story (a future post).
So in writing and editing your work, when one of your characters comes to a fork in the road and has to make a decision, think it over. Is that decision true to their character? Using Smith’s example from above… maybe they would be dumb enough to call out “Who’s there?”
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