Friday, October 8, 2010

Character vs Writer's Plot Clash!

Years ago a friend lent me a book and told me I just had to read it. What was funny at the time was how he also told me the first three books were great, but the ones after weren't worth it. Didn't sound like something I wanted to get into, but since he went to the trouble to bring me one of them, I figured I’d give it a shot.
Within the first few pages I hit something that just about made me think there was no point in reading the rest of it, regardless of the good prose and likeable characters. It was a bad case of where Character Motivation/Smarts and the Author's Plot COLLIDED. (This is not just a book issue. It’s a lot more prevalent on TV.)

In this particular book, a man who lives in a non-magical land and is very well versed about nature, comes across a plant he’s never seen before. He cuts the plant, and it hits him with a thorn in retaliation. When the hero tries to remove the thorn, the latter embeds itself deeper into his hand. The hero has no knife, so does what he can, but the darn thorn acts in unnatural ways and evades his attempts to remove it by totally disappearing into his flesh. He mucks with it for another moment but can’t get rid of it, and then for all intents and purposes, shrugs his shoulder and goes on his way as if this thing that’s invaded his body is of no consequence.

Now, hold the phone!

Anyone who had a thorn in their hand and saw it dig itself deeper like some stubborn animal would be screaming bloody murder and trying to get themselves to the nearest doctor to get the sucker out. (I know I would!) Yet this man forgets all about the invader, except for noticing occasionally how the hand turns red and hurts (like that wouldn't be sending panic signals to anyone else), and goes on his way getting into the meat of the adventure and so on. In my opinion, there was a definite clash in what the writer wanted to set up as a later problem, and what the character would have really done about the problem when it happened. Personally, I would have fallen for the state of things as written if the guy had a least panicked a little, did try to go home to get help, even if on the way he got distracted for a short while by other events going on around him. So this clash between the author and his character could have been averted or minimized for the reader and made that much more believable.
As a writer, you’ll often try to stick to a mental road map of where the story needs to go. And that’s not a bad idea. But it’s also important to absolutely stay true to the motivations and characteristics of the characters you’re portraying or you will be doing the whole novel/story and your readers a huge disservice.

Listen to what the characters tell you, even if it's not part of the map! Would they really go into that dark room alone especially when they hear the growling noises coming from inside? Probably not. Yet there are ways to have it happen where despite their common sense, they’d still go in there.

If you just have to have something happen in the story, but it clashes with your character's motivation/personality find a way to shift the situation so they will do what you want anyway. If you can’t find a way, it wasn’t mean to be – so ditch it. Don't force it! Here's an example: An old saying is that Tonto (The Lone Ranger's Sidekick) never goes into town. "Tonto no go to town." For him, going to town is a stupid thing to do because he knows that due to his race and the prejudices of some of the people there, he will not be welcomed and bad things are likely to happen. But in order for your plot to progress in the story you’re writing, you absolutely must have him in town because it’s the only way he’ll meet the beauty from Boston and fall in love.

So what do you do? You can't just suddenly have Tonto say he wants to go to town. That's totally against his usual motivation/personality. But if he absolutely needs to be in town, be smart, burn some brain cells and then arrange matters in a believable way that while still being true to his personality and choices, Tonto still goes into town.

Making this happen for Tonto is easy.

If the Lone Ranger went to town and hadn’t been heard from in too long and Tonto knew his friend was going into a possibly dangerous situation to begin with, Tonto would eventually go to town to look for his friend and make sure he was alright.

If Tonto received a message that the Lone Ranger was in trouble and needed him, this would also drive him to go to town--his need to be there for his friend would overrule his hesitation about going to a place where there could be unpleasantness or even danger for him.

Both options above keep Tonto true to his character yet it still gets him to where you need him to be to progress the story you want to tell. Know your characters’ personalities and motivations and remain faithful to them. Don't let the planned plot put you in a Character vs. Writer's Plot Clash. The more believable and reasonable you can make the choices your characters make due to the factors you've thrown at them, the more fun and believable the story will be.

Let’s make our work a No Clash Zone~!

Gloria Oliver
Unveiling the Fantastic


  1. Ouch! I'd be crying and boo-hooing for somebody to get that thorn out of me. Whatever else I was doing could wait. You make very good points, Gloria. I remember Tonto and the Lone Ranger. :)

  2. ALWAYS listen to your characters. I see the relationship between author and character as GOD-HUMAN. The god (author) created the character (Tolkien called this subcreation) but the character has free will. So let the character live in his/her world!

  3. Gloria, Very good bit. Have seen books like this that make me want to throw it against the wall. This is an excellent post.

  4. Good points, Gloria. I've given up on several books when the character does something absolutely stupid for the sake of the plot. (or I might suffer and grumble through the rest of the book, but I'll never buy anything by that author again)

  5. Great post! I agree with absolutely everything you said. I've even scrapped entire scenes I love from my own books, all because they contradicted with how my characters would actually react. Sometimes I can find an in-character motivation to save those scenes, but if not? Snip! I don't know about others, but characters always trump plot for me. Always!