Six impossible things

When they don’t wanna

One of the most frustrating things that happens to writers is having a batch of characters worked into just the right spot for the plot to take off…and discovering that they won’t do whatever is supposed to come next.

When you want your characters to go left, and they want to go right, there are three things you can do: 1) Just keep going as originally planned; 2) Figure out some solid reason why these people can’t go the way they want; or 3) Go ahead and let them go right after all, and see what happens.

I’ve never had much luck with #1. Forcing characters to do what I’d planned instead of what those particular characters would do just never works for me; at best, I get stuck for ages, while at worst I manage to plow onward for several chapters, which eventually have to be thrown out. My characters turn instantly to cardboard in my head (well, they would – I’m basically turning them into puppets acting out the plot, rather than developed characters with attitudes and likes and opinions unique to them). It works for some writers though.

#2 has been very useful on a number of occasions. The simplest was when I had a large group on the move, for whom the most logical thing to do was to go around the kingdoms instead of trying to fight their way through; I put a nearly-impassable swamp in the middle of their logical route, thus making it faster to fight through the kingdoms (and speed was a consideration, as they were being chased). Two or three lines during the which-way-do-we-go discussion, and I was all set. Geography is so useful.

A lot of the time, though, forcing the issue isn’t that simple and requires more setup, especially when a physical barrier isn’t enough or isn’t reasonable.  Say I’m faced with characters who want to hide in the woods when I need them to stop at the inn so they can encounter a bunch of other characters and move the plot along. Starting a forest fire to drive them to the inn would work, but would also end up with a whole lot more plot complications.

So instead, I think for a bit about what could happen/might already have happened that would make these particular characters decide that stopping at the inn is a good idea instead of a bad one. There are a couple of people they really, really want to meet up with; perhaps they catch a glimpse of one of them on the road? Or maybe I can go back to their last stop and plant a rumor…what would intrigue them enough that they’d decide to check it out despite the risk? Maybe I need to go back even farther, and give them reason to think there’s evidence they need at the inn (which means they’ll want to come up with a plan to get hold of it while avoiding being seen/identified…yes, that’s got some meat to it).

In other words, I’m not changing who the characters are; I’m changing their circumstances, what they already know (and therefore, what they think they need to know), in order to get them to go where I want them to go so that the things I need to have happen will indeed happen. It can take a while to come up with appropriate (and non-obvious) shifts that fit the plot, and sometimes it takes quite a bit of rewriting of earlier stuff to get them all in, but it can work quite well.

Or, it can not-work, not at all. In which case I’m left with #3 – let the characters ignore the inn and see what happens. There are two sub-possibilities for this: 3a – The characters don’t do what I wanted, and as a result, their situation gets Much Worse (because they weren’t at the inn to see the bad guys getting ready for the attack, so they didn’t know to try to stop it, and now the person they wanted to talk to is dead and the Sekrit Dokuments are on their way to the head villain); or 3b – The characters don’t do what I wanted, and as a result, something entirely different happens, the whole story takes a sharp right turn and I have to completely rework what I thought was going to happen.

3a requires putting some thought into what the bad guys are doing (assuming there are bad guys) while my heroes are out camping, and also thinking about what other things could happen to make the situation worse because they’re not paying attention to the things that need attending to. Maybe while they’re out chasing down bad guys, the flooding river is slowly washing away the foundation of the manor house. Maybe ignoring the first mysterious death means that now there are three more mysterious deaths. Maybe the bad guys have plenty of time to translate the Sekrit Dokuments and get the jump on them. Basically, having a plot means that things are going wrong for the characters somewhere, somehow – and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that if you don’t take care of a problem or situation while it’s still small, it’ll get bigger. So if my characters don’t take care of whatever, it’ll get worse while they’re ignoring it, until they can’t ignore it any more.

3b is really annoying when it happens, but it usually results in a much more interesting book. For one thing, if I wasn’t expecting the characters to get caught by the police and have to stay in town, the readers are unlikely to be expecting it, either. For another, if I wasn’t expecting the heroes to have to handle this situation, neither they nor the villain were expecting it, either, and they’ll all have to come up with new plans on the fly, which tends to make for a lot more story possibilities.

The annoying part is that if what happens next is that different from what I’d expected, I nearly always have to ditch most of my plot and planned events and come up with new ones. But if it makes for a better story, I don’t really have any excuse not to.

  1. Ah, this is just where I am. My viewpoint character has a method, which is to know where he starts and where he’s going and go full-tilt at the latter. (This annoys everyone else in his vicinity, especially since it usually works — eventually.) I was just about at the point where the plot starts to wrap up, with a reversal planned by the viewpoint character. Then no one else reacted the way I was expecting, and three of them turn out to have way different motivations than I’d realised … but as I was working through all of what would need to be changed this morning, I realised that this will make the story far better and resolve a whole bunch of subplots I wasn’t sure how to bring in, let alone resolve. Fortunately, I was already planning a lot of editing…

  2. Aw, thank you very much for the wonderful post!

    I have to admit I’m struggling with the same question at the moment. I have my current WIP all nicely planned, but from time to time my chars just won’t listen to me :-)

    However, one thing I did notice that whenever I try and follow my chars in the directions they want to go, the resulting scenes prove remarkably clicheed and predictable… It reminds me of this famous bit of writing advice, “when you’re coming up with a story idea, disregard the first three as most likely they’ve already been done to death”. Probably, here it’s the same process at work. When I plan a scene I have plenty of time to make sure my chars act and think in a fresh, unclicheed way, but when I allow them to think for themselves they apparently take the path of least resistance…

  3. Irene,
    that’s interesting -for me it’s exactly the opposite way round. If I try to plan scenes they’re clicheed and predictable; my characters come up with stuff that simply amazes me, and they’re much more ‘in character’ and rooted in the world than I am.

  4. My characters don’t want to go left instead. They just sulk about going right until I flip it around so they go left instead. Then they reveal that was what they wanted.

  5. What Mary said. My characters don’t like to give hints either. They just glare at me while I frantically wrack my brain going `what is your problem? C’mon, a little help here would be nice.’

  6. “I’m not changing who the characters are; I’m changing their circumstances.” <– this. With this take, your characters also face more conflict, which can be good for readers. I often will take this approach, it just takes longer to make all the details work out. Either that or I go with option 3 and see where it takes me. I agree that this leaves more things open for surprises.

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