Wednesday, 4 March 2015

When Characters Are Clueless

There’s a type of sentence that keeps appearing lately and I really wish it wouldn’t. Within a few measly words, the author has openly admitted their shortcomings and tried to solve it using this crafty little technique. It’s not even sweeping the problem under the rug – it’s holding the rug up to guests so they can get a good look at what you’ve hidden before offering them a tea.

More specifically, it’s when the characters acknowledge that they are either confused by what they’re doing, or when they’re struggle to put their actual situation into words so they more or less shrug at another character.

Motivation: “I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I’m doing it anyway.”

Concepts: “I don’t think anyone understands it.”

These are two lines I’ve pulled from books I’ve recently read, ones that were a sinking ship anyway but at this point it feels like the author has given up.

If the characters have no idea, what chance does the reader have? If you ever find yourself using this plot device, it’s time to start questioning whether you’ve got yourself a solid concept and a realistic plot progression.

Of course, a character can act on their gut, especially if they’re a spontaneous risk taker or someone who tends to get involved when they see issues. It makes sense if the character is in danger or nothing left to lose. Then again, we’re starting to develop actual motives here, and that’s where the real problem stems.

When this line is at its worst, it’s usually because the events leading up to it haven’t been sufficient to support anything other than confusion. The author has spotted a potential flaw. In those cases, the line translates to:

Motivation: “Look. I need my character to do this because then some other stuff will happen and it will all make sense. I promise.”

Concepts: “Okay, I know it’s a bit wordy but go with it for now.”

Character needs some sort of motivation. Concepts need to be understood on some sort of level, even if some information is withheld. If the characters are flummoxed rather than curious then there’s a good chance your readers will be too. As I said in one my recent reviews, the questions should be ‘What will happen next?’ or ‘When will we learn more about that?’ rather than just a slack-jawed, furrow-browed, “What?”

If you’re struggling to write around this issue, then welcome to the writers’ block. We did have cookies, but we ate them all as we pondered our plot issues...