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The three worst words in fiction

This morning I asked Twitter what the three worst words in fiction are. I got answers like suddenly, something happened, tall, dark, and handsome, purple, throbbing, and manhood, and my favorite of those submitted, only a dream.

Those are good answers. I mean really, I would hope an author can be more specific about what happened than “something,” and when it does happen, I certainly hope it doesn’t turn out to be a dream. But for my money, the three worst words in fiction are:

The chosen one.

That’s it. I can’t stand it when a character is the chosen one to complete some quest, go on some journey, win an epic sandwich-making contest, or whatever it might be. I hate that. This has long been a pet peeve of mine, but it was only this morning while I was making the kids’ breakfast that it finally clicked for me why this drives me so bonkers. So now I’ve got to blog it, because if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll know I’m big on understanding the why of writing.

It’s plot motivation.

Plot motivation, if you’re not familiar with the term, is when characters do things purely to satisfy the particular plot direction the author wants to go in. Plot motivation contrasts with character motivation, which is when characters do things because it makes sense for them to do it, given who they are, what they can do, their state of mind at the time, and the particulars of the situation. Plot motivation is extrinsic; character motivation in intrinsic.

Being the chosen one is inherently plot motivation. It has to be. For a character to be the chosen one means they’re making sandwiches because, well, they’re chosen for it. Not because they necessarily want to or feel driven to. Not because they’re good at it. Not because making sandwiches fulfills some deep-seated psychological need the character has. Not because a lack of sandwiches might spell the unraveling of the universe (though that might also be true, depending on the plot, but that’s just stakes).

No. None of those character motivations applies to the chosen one. The chosen one slathers metaphorical mayo on metaphorical bread because of some arbitrary choice imposed on them from the outside. Or in other words, because the author is making them do it. Sure, the author always applies some thin veneer of legend or mystic second-sight or special bloodlines or whatever other fairy-mustard they like as a justification for the choice. No offense, but that’s little more than a shallow, hand-waving attempt to distract the reader from the author’s failure to come up with a real reason why this character has to make sandwiches. A reason based on genuine needs or desires. A reason based on intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic compulsion.

It hoses the drama.

If you need a secondary line of argument, in my view being the chosen one also kills much of a story’s drama. Basically, the instant you tag a character as chosen for bologna-on-Wonder-Bread greatness, readers know how the story’s going to turn out. I mean, come on. It’s not like you’re going to let the bloody chosen one fail, are you? Of course not.

The thing about drama is that it relies on the reader’s perception of uncertainty about the outcome of situations in your plot. So as soon as you make so-and-so the chosen sandwich-maker, you drastically reduce the uncertainty about the outcome, and with it, you kill the drama dead.

Think about good old Frodo Baggins, ringbearing his way into Mordor. How dramatic would it have been if Gandalf had said, there in the bucolic Shire, “Frodo, my boy, you are the chosen one, foretold in the legends of the Maiar to bring about salvation to Middle Earth. Now take this ring of power and go forth into Mordor!” Backed by such a prophesy, would we ever have been worried for Frodo’s safety along the way? Of course not. We’d know the Balrog wasn’t going to get him. That he’d escape from Shelob somehow. That Gollum wouldn’t ever actually kill him for the ring. Don’t worry, such a prophesy tells us, it’ll all work out fine in the end!

Thankfully, that’s not what Tolkien did. Frodo wasn’t chosen by anybody but himself. His motivations were always intrinsic. He took the ring to the council at Rivendell not because he was chosen but because somebody had to, and it might as well be him because the Nazgûl were going to kill him for it anyway. Then when the council couldn’t make up their damn minds what to do, Frodo volunteered for the quest because he knew what was at stake, with no guarantees or prophetic reassurances that he would survive. It was an act of noble self-sacrifice, not the churlish whim of fate, destiny, or arbitrary external choice. Which one sounds more dramatic to you?

Faux success

In the end, the problem is this. I need a protagonist I can root for. But I find that I have a lot of trouble rooting for the chosen one, because on some level to be “chosen for greatness” is a cop-out. The greatness is fake.

Fiction has a completely legitimate role in escapism. It’s fun to read about characters with radically different lives, and imagine ourselves doing things that would be radically impossible or foolhardy in the real world. And certainly it’s fun to imagine the wild success of winning through an epic quest, of bringing home the biggest damn blue ribbon for sandwich making the world has ever seen.

We all want to be successful, right? And fiction has a role in letting us vicariously experience that through the characters in books. The thing is, real success is hard. It’s supposed to be. Great achievement is necessarily difficult. One must face challenges. Overcome personal and external limitations. Discover new things. Make mistakes and fix them. All of that. That’s what true achievement looks like.

My problem with chosen ones is that their route to success doesn’t require them to actually be great. They simply have to march along the path the writer has cleared for them, their foreordained successes ringing hollow with every step. As with everything in writing, this is yet another application of show, don’t tell. When a writer makes a character be the chosen one, that writer is trying to tell me that the character is great. They’re begging me to believe in the character’s greatness simply because they say so. Sorry. It doesn’t work that way.

But when a writer shows me a character’s greatness through choices and actions—when the writer gives me a Frodo Baggins who risks his whole existence, with no expectation of reward, simply because he can’t stand to see a very bad thing happen—I get to watch the character become great by what he accomplishes in spite of every obstacle and limitation. The writer doesn’t have to tell me the character is great; I can conclude that for myself.

May 15, 2012 19:47 UTC

Tags: chosen one, plot motivation, character motivation, hero, hero's journey, drama, show don't tell, J.R.R. Tolkien, character

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Swimming to find your characters


What lies beneath

Leaving aside for a moment that icebergs probably don’t really glow like that on their undersides, the iceberg still makes a nice metaphor for the characters in your book. Or rather, for the process of coming to know who those characters are.

I’d argue that when we think about our novels ahead of time, our conceptions of the characters are much like the visible part of the iceberg. Pretty, but not nearly the whole picture.

The water hides everything else. You cannot see the rest of the iceberg until—and unless—you get into the water. You must swim down, under the cold water, to see the whole thing.

The water, in this metaphor, is the writing.

I will also argue that you cannot truly come to know who your characters are, in all their multi-dimensional glory, until you plunge in and get wet.

Two case studies

This has never been more evident to me than this past November, during National Novel Writing Month. But somehow, this year’s experience helped me understand the iceberg and the water in a new way, so I thought I’d share.

Now first, I’m a plotter, not a pantser. I spend a lot of time before writing figuring out how the story is going to develop, which in turn means figuring out a lot about my main protagonists and antagonists ahead of time. Even before setting out on page one of my novel, I can tell you how my protagonist feels about her general situation in life. I can tell you what she wants. What she’s mad about. I can tell you the same for her mother, her father, and the antagonist who’s going to hound my protagonist’s family for the whole book. For these people, the visible part of the iceberg is a bit bigger. It has to be, because characters drive stories; the plot and the personalities have to mesh just-so in order for the whole thing to work out.

But I don’t spend much time on the minor characters. Their icebergs barely poke up above the water. Before I write, I know their names and how they function in the plot. I have vague mental images of them, but that’s really all. For all my planning, they were barely even one-dimensional characters.

It was only when I jumped into the water this November that I discovered who they were. They became three-dimensional people as I swam around in their scenes. I want to share that process with you, because the thinking behind it isn’t specific to this story. It should work for any writer, and any character, in any scene.

And just to set the stage for you, this novel’s one-sentence pitch is “A frontier girl, the daughter of German immigrants, must help save her family’s homestead from the corrupt railroad barons who would drive them off their land.” It’s a middle-grade western, set in 1863, in the Nebraska Territory.

Mr. Harper

Here’s what I had about Mr. Harper before I started writing. Mr. Harper is a bachelor who lives a country mile down the road from my protagonist’s homestead. He’s good with horses. That’s it. It’s not much to go on, is it? But I figured, he’s a minor character anyway, what does it matter?

Come on. Every character matters.

The first time my 10 year old protagonist Maria meets Mr. Harper, she’s in a bit of a pickle. She has been out on the prairie, away from home, longer than she should. Now night is falling and she has to get home and she knows she’s already going to be in trouble for being out so late. As it happens, she came past Mr. Harper’s homestead on the way back to her own. I wasn’t exactly expecting Mr. Harper to appear at quite this point in the story, but that’s how the preceding scene evolved, so I went with it.

Suddenly, I had to know how Mr. Harper was going to react to Maria’s unexpected, evening arrival at his homestead. His reaction depends entirely on his own attitudes, wishes, and goals—in short, on what he wants—but I didn’t know what that was.

I know what Maria wants. She wants a ride home. And she probably wants a third-party, someone outside of the family, to be around when she gets home in order to temper the severity of her parents’ angry response.

But what does Mr. Harper want? Right there, in that at-the-keyboard moment of working this out, my vague notions of who Mr. Harper might be crashed headlong into my planning of how the story is going to unfold later, with modern-day readers’ mental image of what frontier life was like and how people acted back then, et cetera.

Mr. Harper might want anything. Maybe he’s a greedy rascal and only wants money. Maybe he’s a reclusive type who only wants solitude. There is a whole gamut of things Mr. Harper might want—goals he might have—which will drive his response to Maria’s arrival.

Except I have a story to write, and I need certain things out of him. And when he does those things, I need them to come across as believable expressions of the man I have previously shown him to be. Starting right here with this first time Maria meets him.

In particular, I need readers and Maria’s family to like him, because of things that happen later in the story. He ends up helping them with a lame horse, and when I raise the stakes later, it’s by also threatening his homestead. That won’t play strongly unless readers care about him, too.

All of which means I need him to be nice in this scene. To help her out. That makes sense: out on the prairie you never know when you might need a good neighbor’s help, so even in selfish terms, helping Maria now gives him a store of good will with neighbors who may help him later.

Filtering the spectrum of possible Mr. Harpers through the prism of what the story needs now and will need later, was enough for me to zero in on what kind of guy he is. Simply thinking through the scene from his point of view—even a barely sketched out point of view—was enough to figure out how he’d react.

From there, it was natural to imagine how he would talk to her in a way that was friendly and neighbor-like. In the course of writing that scene, I discovered a congenial southern drawl that seemed to come naturally to him. He became a genuinely friendly guy, the kind of guy who if he lived in 2011 instead of 1863, would just as soon hug you as shake your hand and you’d be ok with that.

Could I have planned this ahead of time? Maybe. But I liked doing it this way better. I think it has a more spontaneous, organic feeling to it than if I’d have tried to over-specify this minor character ahead of time. He was a lot more fun this way, and is actually kind of a scene-stealer.

Mr. LeClerc

Mr. LeClerc is a French-Canadian guy who runs the dry goods store in the nearby frontier town of Columbus. Again, not much to go on. Again, it was only when I jumped into the waters of his first scene that I could see who this character was supposed to be.

Maria meets Mr. LeClerc on the occasion of selling him some baskets she and her mother have made. She and her father are in town to attend to various business, and her father got it into his head that Maria needed to be the one to handle the selling of the baskets, even though she had never done business with anybody before in her life. I didn’t plan that part either, but it seemed like the kind of thing her father would do, so I went with it.

So Maria has to negotiate a price with this Mr. LeClerc, a stranger she has never met before, and the poor thing starts out by asking for a price that’s way, way too low. She has no experience with money. She has no idea what anything really costs, so she blows it. She asks for a nickel each—about $1.25 in today’s money—not nearly enough. When in doubt, make things worse, right?

Now, how does Mr. LeClerc react? Again, his goals are terribly relevant. What does any shopkeeper want? To build up a good business and do well for himself. So maybe he knows a great deal when he sees it, and buys the baskets for a song, never letting on how much she’s getting screwed on the deal.

Maybe, but not so fast. I have a story to write, and things that need to happen later. Next time she sees Mr. LeClerc, in fact, I need for her to trust him. And that’s not going to happen if she gets home and her mother yells at her for not getting a fair price for the baskets. She’ll know she got screwed. I’m left with needing a way for Mr. LeClerc to get her up to a fair price, even though on the surface, he would naturally love to buy a bunch of nicely made baskets for cheap.

Thinking it through from his broader point of view, considering more than just the opportunity of the moment, I realized that it’s not a contradictory situation at all. Mr. LeClerc is a frontier shopkeeper. His clientele is kind of limited. It’s a small town, and he can’t afford to be alienating his customers. This includes Maria’s father. So LeClerc knows that if he screws Maria on the deal, it will likely cost him business later.

From there, it was easy. Once I had thought through LeClerc’s goals within the context of that situation, a solution presented itself. I let him reveal that he wouldn’t feel right about taking advantage of her in that way: He said, “No! If I buy them for one nickel only, I cannot sleep at night!” From there, they worked out a fair price, and I got what I needed too: the plot moved where I wanted, Maria now has reason to trust him later (because he treated her fairly here), and as a bonus, I got some additional insight into what kind of man he is. He’s a basically honest guy, and kind enough to give Maria a way out of her mistake which didn’t humiliate her.

You must swim the waters

Those are just two examples, but I hope they give you the idea. When you’re stuck in a scene for knowing how someone will act, think about what it is they want to get out of the scene. What are their goals and desires? And think about what you need in order to for the story to go where you intend it to. Between the two of those factors, you will be able to figure out what kind of person will give you a reaction that works. That’s how you see the rest of the iceberg.

December 02, 2011 21:47 UTC

Tags: character, writing, NaNoWriMo, character motivation, personality

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