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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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Using the bystander effect in your novels

Take a look at that picture. What do you see in it? A street scene. Tumbled flats of vegetables, corn, green beans, and what look like cucumbers spilled on the pavement. People walking past. What don’t you see? Anybody lifting a finger to help clean it up. The original picture this one was cropped from has over a dozen people in it, and every one of them is probably thinking something along the lines of “Ooh, glad that’s not my problem.”

That’s the bystander effect. It is the tendency for people to offer less help to strangers the more other people are around. The ironic thing is that if there had been only one other person on the street when this little accident took place, that person would have been much more likely to step in and offer assistance.

Why does it happen?

The reasons behind it are pretty straightforward, and psychologists seem to be of the impression that a number of factors contribute to the bystander effect. One is “diffusion of responsibility” (don’t you just love the fancy names psychologists come up with for everything?): not doing anything because you figure surely someone else will. Another is social proof: when confronted with an emergency situation, people’s initial reaction is to look around to see how other people are responding in order to decide how to respond. So everyone looks around, and sees everyone else also just looking around—that is, not doing anything because they’re also busy making the same internal assessment—and decides that the situation must not be all that serious. A third is uncertainty and fear, not being confident of one’s ability to actually help, or to help in a way that the help-ee will actually appreciate. These are all pretty normal feelings, but they all add up to folks not helping other folks as much as we might hope.

So what can you do with it in your novels? Three things, which revolve around the different roles present in these kinds of situations:

Victim

As I’ve counseled many times before, it’s good to do bad things to your main characters, so your poor protagonists may well be the ones in a scene who would like some help.

If you’re writing in an intimate point of view, either first person or third-person limited, then the POV character is the stand-in for the reader. This creates a wonderful opportunity to create reader empathy: Let the POV character need help, but not get any. Let any bystanders in the scene, well, stand by. If you portray the POV character’s need for help as well as his or her growing sense of desperation as nobody steps up to offer that help, you can really put readers on the edge of their seats. Basically, by giving readers enough information to understand that the emergency situation really is an emergency—that help is genuinely needed—they’ll be just as frustrated at the useless bystanders as your POV character.

This can work really well in an opening scene, as a means for quickly bonding the reader to your POV characters in order that the reader cares what happens to them. You need to be careful not to let your POV characters be so utterly helpless and pathetic that readers can’t root for them—which probably means letting your characters solve their own problems after failing to get help from anybody else—but it can be a great way to create a character-based hook for a novel.

Useless bystander

On the flip-side, you might put a POV character into the useless bystander role. Why might you do this? Because it works well in the early chapters of novels that are driven by inner character arcs as a way to drive home the character’s starting point. When you have a character who is going to experience some kind of inner growth as the story progresses, you need a way to show that they are presently in an emotionally blocked or stunted state. Showing that POV character being unable to render aid and assistance can achieve this.

Be careful, though; there is an obvious danger. It’s easy for readers to decide they don’t like a character who sees someone in need but decides not to help. The way around this pitfall is to make sure the reader understands two things: why the POV character cannot help, and that the POV character feels bad about it. You have to let the reader into the character’s head enough to see the character’s internal debate over whether to help, enough to help the reader understand the choice not to, and enough to see that despite that choice the character would have liked to help. Show us the character’s impulses towards helping, and the counter-impulses against helping. If you show us the struggle, we’re more likely to feel positively towards the character even though the character’s better nature loses.

Which is kind of the point. It’s that very self-defeat by one’s own inner demons that sets the stage for the book’s inner character arc.

Hero

Lastly, of course, there’s the hero. The bystander who doesn’t merely stand by, but in fact goes to the aid of the person in need. If you’re writing some kind of action/adventure book, you’re in very good company by using this technique to build up your character as a heroic figure. How many books have we seen that involve some variant on POV characters rescuing kittens from trees, chasing down muggers in order to return an old lady’s purse, et cetera? It’s common, because it works, but I caution you to be careful here, too.

The common-ness of this technique pushes it dangerously close to cliche territory. Further, it’s very easy to overdo it and end up with an implausibly melodramatic result. That’s fine, if you’re writing a tongue-in-cheek superhero novel or something, but most of the time it damages the reader’s belief in the character. I mean, sure, real life does have its selfless heroes who, without hesitation, run into burning buildings or dive into flood-swollen rivers to save other people.

But most novels need something a little more tame in order for readers to believe in the character as a real person, and that something is exactly what those real-life heroes don’t have: hesitation. Again, it’s all about letting the reader into the character’s head. For my money, you get a much more believable and sympathetic hero if you show the character’s internal debate about helping. The only difference between the hero, then, and the useless bystander is which side of the character’s personality wins the debate. So let us see the character asking himself, “Does that person really need help? Should I jump in? The character is a proxy for the reader here, too, so it’s very helpful to show the character asking himself the same kinds of questions readers would be asking themselves in that situation.

Then, all you need is something to break that internal logjam in favor of acting. It could be anything. Empathy for the victim because the hero suffered a similar problem in the past isn’t bad, if a little cliched still. For male POV character’s, there’s always the allure of playing the hero in order to impress a girl. That always works. But my favorite reason to jump in is frustration at not seeing anybody else jump in. You take the POV character from seeing the situation and thinking “gosh, somebody should really help that person,” to wondering “why is nobody helping?” and finally to “Dammit! I guess I’ll help, then!”

Conclusion

So, there you go. The bystander effect, and three ways to make it work for you in your novels. I’m curious to know, is this something you’ve used in your novels before? Is it something that could help your current work-in-progress? Tell us about it down in the comments!

August 03, 2010 21:34 UTC

Tags: character, bystander effect, victim, hero, sympathy, inner character arc

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The other half of the sympathy equation

In my last post, I discussed why it is important for a novel’s protagonist to not only take actions within the story, but also display believable emotional reactions to the situations you put him in. When you have both, you create a sympathetic character for the reader. Those two elements—action and emotion—create a character readers will inherently want to root for.

In the comments on that post, astute reader Leah Raeder points out that there is more to it than that:

We have to feel like characters can lose something (or have already lost) in order to feel sympathy for them.

She is absolutely right. Her point goes to the question of stakes: what does your character stand to gain or lose in any given scene? Compelling stakes are so powerful in enticing readers to sympathize with a character that they can actually rescue a story in which the protagonist fails the first half of the sympathy equation.

James Bond is a perfect example, which is exactly why the high-stakes poker game scene from Casino Royale jumped to mind as an illustration for this article. James Bond utterly fails the first half of the sympathy equation.

I give him full marks for action: Bond displays decisiveness in spades, and never delays an opportunity to take action. But emotionally, he fails. He doesn’t show us believable emotional responses. His cool-as-a-cucumber demeanor even in the hottest situations, and his devil-may-care attitude towards danger are not particularly realistic.

Yes, there are people in the world like that. That’s not the point. The point is, your readers probably aren’t like that themselves. Your readers are much more likely to be normal people who, you know, feel fear and stuff. They’re going to have trouble relating to someone who doesn’t.

Yet no one can argue that the character of James Bond has enjoyed wild success. Why? Because he’s always playing for very compelling, very high stakes. More than once, the fate of Queen and Country or even the whole world has rested on the outcomes of James Bond’s death-defying heroism.

The stakes in every Bond caper are so high they outweigh the protagonist’s stunted emotional development. Or, as Donald Maass put it very well in his book Writing the Breakout Novel:

If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes.

When something important is at risk, we naturally expect characters to take extreme measures to eliminate that risk. Ask yourself, does every scene in your novel—like every scene in Casino Royale—bear directly on that risk or its consequences? If so, and especially if you get the first half of the sympathy equation right too, you might just have another Bond on your hands.

March 22, 2010 18:12 UTC

Tags: character, sympathy, hero, protagonist, stakes, James Bond, Donald Maass

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What makes a sympathetic hero?

One of my favorite writers on Twitter, K.M. Weiland, posed a question today as to what qualities make a protagonist into a sympathetic hero. That is, what is it that makes readers care about the character? What makes readers view the character as a hero? It’s a great question.

K.M. will probably give her own notions on her blog, and I hope she does, but in the meantime here’s my take on it. In answering, I’m going to tackle heroism first.

Heroism Heroes are characterized by action. The hero actually does things. He or she doesn’t sit around watching things happen, or waiting for situations to resolve themselves. You may have a protagonist who is passive like that—although I wouldn’t recommend it—but readers won’t view that person as a hero.

What distinguishes heroes from other characters is a personality that turns toward action when faced with problems. That’s the hero’s default response: to decide what to do, and then do it. Other characters may, by default, run away. They may put their blinders on and ignore the problem, hoping it will go away. But not a hero. A hero faces the problem in all its possibly terrifying ugliness, and gets to work. That’s what makes a hero.

And please, don’t let the word “action” confuse you. While this does apply to action novels, it’s broader than that. I’m talking about “choices a character makes and follows through on.” It’s not just, for example, running into the burning building to save a child, or barreling into a firefight with guns drawn against the bad guys. In the right circumstances, simple things like picking up the phone to call your mother can be every bit as dramatic and heroic as any death-defying act.

Sympathy That said, actions alone do not guarantee that a hero will be sympathetic. You can have a character who is the most action-oriented hero in the world—decisive, never at a loss for what to do—and yet still fail to have readers care about him in the least.

To get sympathy, you need emotion, not action. To engender sympathy in your readers, you need to your hero to display believable emotional responses to the difficult, terrifying problems you throw at them. An iconic example that jumps to mind is from Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones runs from the boulder. Classic.

It works, because Indy shows obvious fear in the situation. He doesn’t just see the boulder, calmly say “Oh, a boulder,” and scoot away. No, he RUNS! away. Hard. Fast. Terrified. Showing the obvious and believable emotion creates sympathy because viewers know how they would feel in that situation. Most of them would be similarly terrified. I know I would.

It works the same in books too. Confront your character with a dramatic problem, and readers will know how they themselves would feel in that situation. When your character feels the same way or a similar way, that creates sympathy.

A sympathetic hero, then, is a hero who has ordinary, believable feelings about difficult situations, but who isn’t paralyzed by those feelings. A hero is character who acts anyway, despite those feelings.

Mix it up While you’re busy creating all these emotionally difficult moments of action, take care provide some variety. Why? Because readers aren’t all the same. Let’s take some classic phobias as examples. Some people are afraid of heights. Others, of spiders. Or snakes. Or confined spaces. Or the number 13. Some people are afraid of confrontation. Or of people being upset with them. Or of social situations.

Emotional challenges come in all shapes and sizes, and your readers won’t actually sympathize with all of them. That’s why you should mix it up.

Let’s say your hero is afraid of heights. So, naturally, you set a pivotal moment of action on top of a tall high-rise building. The kind that’s tall enough that if you fall, you’re going to have plenty of time to think about it on the way down. Stepping out onto that roof top in order to take action is going to be an emotionally challenging moment for the character. But in order to act, he or she needs to bypass the fear and do it anyway.

For readers who are also afraid of heights, this scene is going to resonate with them like crazy. They are totally going to sympathize with the character’s fear, and when they see the character overcome it, they’re going to totally view that character as a hero.

But not me. I actually enjoy heights. On some intellectual level, yes, I can recognize and appreciate the character’s difficulty. But it’s just not going to create the same sense of sympathy in me as it would in an acrophobic reader.

However, I’m not such a big fan of social situations and being the center of attention. Public speaking is very, very hard for me. So, show me a character who is shy like me but is called upon to convince a crowd of skeptical listeners to go march on City Hall, and I’m there. You’ve got my sympathy.

I’m not saying to make your characters into total neurotic wrecks so as to resonate with the fears of as many readers as possible. But if it fits with your story, try to give us more than one. Your character will feel more real, more fully developed that way, and will inevitably be more sympathetic for it.

Update: Due to a particularly brilliant comment on this post by one of my readers, there is now a Part 2 article that looks at another very (very!) useful way to create sympathy. James Bond uses it all the time, and look at how successful that character is!

March 17, 2010 19:46 UTC

Tags: character, sympathy, hero, protagonist, action, phobias, emotion

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Making good choices for your characters

This past Saturday I spent some time reflecting on how the choices we make tell others about our own character. In that post, I promised an article on how that applies to fiction. That promise has been on my mind ever since, and I may only banish it by writing about it.

First, a quick poll. Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen the following in a TV show: The hero manages to get the drop on the antagonist. The hero’s gun is drawn. The antagonist is backed into a corner. The drama is high. It feels like the climax of the show, except there’s one problem—the hero doesn’t just shoot the damn villain and be done with it.

Is your hand up? Yup, mine is, too.

Now, you know, and I know, and the show’s writers know that when the show does finish the villain is going to be dead. One way or another, we all know that’s going to happen. So why doesn’t the hero shoot? Well, there’s one little problem. There’s still 20 minutes left in the show and you can’t very well dispose of the bad guy now! What would you do for the next 20 minutes? All the drama would be gone!

So, the good guy doesn’t shoot. The bad guy somehow escapes, and the story continues. Problem solved, right? Not so fast.

The story problem (or to put it more bluntly, the writer’s problem of figuring out how to drag a thin story out for another 20 minutes), has only been traded for something worse: a characterization problem. It’s a solution that leaves the viewer wondering why the hero is such a friggin’ idiot: He’s got the bad guy literally in his sights. Whatever nefarious doings the villain has been up to, the hero can put a stop to it right then and there. So why doesn’t he? Within the world of the story, within the events leading up to that moment, there’s no good reason at all not to. Yet, the obvious thing fails to happen and the viewer is left with no choice but to conclude that the hero is a moron.

I hate when that happens in TV shows and cinema. But sadly, it happens all too often in books, too.

When this happens, a good writer will go back and enhance the events that have led up to that pivotal moment so they take 20 more minutes—or a hundred more pages—so the climax naturally happens at the end, where it’s supposed to, at a moment when the hero really can go ahead and pull the trigger.

A mediocre writer will turn their character into an idiot, because they’re excited to move on to the next scene and the ultimate really really big finish they’ve had in mind since they started the book.

Don’t do that to your characters. Please. You’re a writer, right? Writers are supposed to love their characters. Why would you do that to someone you love?

What I’ve described is the (sadly, all too common) extreme case of bad characterization through poor decision making. Don’t just worry about the big situations in your novels. Choices happen at all levels, throughout a book.

Good novels continually present their main characters with crises: problems, challenges and obstacles to overcome. Some will be small, some will be grand. A mediocre writer will let their characters do the first thing that comes to mind that solves the writer’s problem. A good writer will let their character do the smart thing in that situation, even if doing so creates other challenges for the writer. A great writer will construct the situation such that there is only one thing the character can do, and it’s simultaneously the smart thing but also unpleasant or difficult.

At every moment where your characters are faced with a non-trivial choice (I’m not talking about “hmm, mocha, or espresso?” situations), you must ask yourself some questions:

What do I want the character to do for reasons of advancing the plot in the direction I want it to go?

What is the smart thing to do, that a real, intelligent person would do in this situation?

If the answer to those questions are the same, you’re in good shape. If not, you know what to do: fix the setup so they are the same. You’re not done yet, though. Having decided what the character should do, ask yourself a third, pivotal question:

What does that choice reveal about the character?

This goes beyond “does it make your character look like an idiot?” Was it a difficult choice for the character to make? Does the character have to sacrifice anything by making that choice? If not, you risk making your character seem risk-averse, someone who takes the easy way out.

Did the character come to that choice immediately, or did he/she have to wrestle with other courses of action before deciding what to do? Even if there really is only one viable choice, if the character immediately jumps to that decision you run the risk of making your character seem rash or reckless. (Worse, if the choice isn’t necessarily obvious, you show your hand by making the plot seem foreordained. But that’s a subject for another article.)

If you don’t like what the choice says about the character, go back to the first two questions and start over.

Like I said in my earlier post, choices are perhaps the strongest indicators of character at your disposal as a writer. So have a care. What your characters choose, how they choose it, how they arrive at their choices, and even how they feel about those choices: all of it contributes enormously to how readers perceive your characters.

Yes, it’s work. Yes, you may have to think hard to find the right choice for the character. Nobody said this was easy, but don’t turn your beloved characters into idiots (or worse) by worrying about solving your writing problem more than you worry about how best to portray your characters.

July 07, 2009 21:54 UTC

Tags: choice, character, hero, villain, smart, idiot

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