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Saturday, April 30, 2005

Characterization and Its Influence on Plot

If I had to put writers into two categories, I'd say there are writers who get the plot first and then look for characters for their story. Then there are the writers who get the characters and are in search of a plot for them.

Put me in the second camp. I get characters--they come in as fully formed and complete people--then I have to figure out what their story is. I generally have a vague idea. In The Power of Two, I heard the word "nanotechnology" and then got the idea about the hero and heroine connected via nanoprobes first. But that's all I had as far as plot goes. Next, I heard my heroine's name, Cai. Then information about her and the hero started coming in fast and furious, but I still didn't know the story that I would tell in their book.

The fact that I don't get plot details can be a pain, especially when I'm working on a proposal and trying to put together a synopsis. I'm very lucky that I have a writing buddy who's a plotter and we brainstorm together all the time. (She's the best!) The one thing I discovered--and it really surprised me since I was a total seat of the pants writer--is that I like having the loose plotting to guide me as I write. There's still enough room to be flexible, but I don't seem to get stuck as often either. Who ever would have thought that this would happen???

So back to the topic, characterization and its influence on plot. Characters, how they're presented, how they behave, who they are BETTER affect the plot of a book. If it doesn't, the writer is cheating their characters and their readers. Big time.

I have the perfect example of an author who betrayed her characters for plot convenience. I will not name names or titles, or give any identifying information on this book, period. But I will talk about it generalities to demonstrate what I mean. (BTW, this is an author I'd read somewhat regularly and liked, so I was expecting another great story. Just so you know that I started this book prepared to love it.)

For the first half of this story, the author portrays a very smart hero and heroine. Very smart. There isn't one scene that didn't show this trait in both h/h. Then came the middle of the book. The author had the hero do something that was incredibly stupid--in my mind, it fell into the TSTL (Too Stupid to Live) category--and it was completely out of character from what the author had shown of him up until now. Then she compounds it by having the hero do another stupid thing, then another. This all happened in a matter of pages, certainly no more than a chapter.

Then, later in the book, our smart heroine also pulls something incredibly stupid--and the author compounds this by throwing in a coincidence that involved an out of character behavior for the bad guy. So now the author has betrayed how she's presented every major character in her story. Then she throws in a couple more things I label as contrivance.

As a reader, I was angry and felt manipulated. I did finish the book, but I wasn't involved in the story or the characters from the middle to the end.

After I was done, my writer hat came out and I began analyzing what this author had done and why. This is what I came up with. She had a plot that she wanted to have happen a certain way, including a big showdown between her h/h and the bad guy. But the way she'd written the first half of the book, this big climax was never going to occur because the bad guy would never know who the hero was or about the woman the hero loved. I think the author decided that she had to find some way to get her plot back on track, and she did it by sacrificing character and then by throwing in a couple of coincidences/lucky breaks that I, as a reader, couldn't buy.

So how do I think this author could have fixed her story to have the outcome she wanted? If she would have shown in the first half of the book that the hero had made mistakes before, then making another boneheaded move wouldn't have been jarring. Same thing with the heroine. As for the bad guy, if he'd left work early before, then I could have bought him leaving work early near the end, but it's presented as the first time he's ever done such a thing and for absolutely no good reason! This is what caused me problems.

With one book, this author became someone who I bought and read on a regular basis to someone I won't read again because I don't trust her any more. That's a big point. Writers should never break trust with their readers--ever. If I'm promised a smart hero and heroine, they damn well better stay smart unless I get a very good reason for them to deviate from who they are.

I'm going to use my own book as an example here because I'm very familiar with the characters, the whys of their behavior, and how things played out as I wrote. In Ravyn's Flight, I have my hero, Damon, go off alone at the end of the book to fight the bad guy even though he's been warned that he can only defeat him if Ravyn is with him. I know at least one reader thought this was TSTL behavior, and while I can see why she believes this, I respectfully disagree. From the very first scene Damon, an Army Special Operations officer, appears in, I begin showing what it is about him that is going to compel him to go off alone, why there is simply no other choice for him to make that fits who he is at his core.

It starts with a hint at the end of the first scene, but it's the beginning of a story-long journey that ends with the final climax. On page 7 of a 320 page book, Damon thinks: He had to keep Ravyn safe. He refused to fail. Not this time.

As Ravyn and Damon are on the run across Jarved Nine, there are multiple places where I show how protective he is of Ravyn, how he beats himself up every time he makes what he perceives to be a mistake. There are events that show he's hyper-responsible. I'm not going to cite each and every one of them, but they're numerous. Ravyn recognizes this about Damon and wonders why he's so gung ho on protecting her--that his actions went beyond responsibility and honor. Something is driving him.

On page 156, after Ravyn is hurt and has had a hallucination where she accuses him of leaving her, Damon is holding her and the chapter closes with: Closing his eyes, Damon tightened his hold on Ravyn. Somehow she knew he couldn't be trusted to protect her. Maybe she sensed his past failure. He didn't know. "No one's going to hurt you," he vowed. "I'll die first."

It's spelled right out for the reader here. Something has gone wrong in Damon's past, something that still is uppermost in his mind. It's also said right out that he'll give up his life if it means Ravyn remains safe. After what's happened in the 149 pages between the first scene in Damon's POV and this one, his promise is right in character.

It's in chapter 14 that the reader (and Ravyn) learns what it is in Damon's past that makes him so hellbent on protecting her. He'd probably feel this way anyhow since they're soul mates, but maybe it wouldn't be as strong without what had happened eight years earlier when he was a green second lieutenant. It was a defining moment of his life and shaped who he is now to a great degree.

On page 223, Ravyn and Damon are told that they can only defeat the bad guy if they face him together. But Damon immediately dismisses this. On page 225, he tells Ravyn: "You aren't going with me. I'm leaving you with the rescue team and taking care of him myself." Again, it's spelled out. He's not allowing Ravyn to put herself at risk, period.

But what about the rescue team? Can't he take them with him?

First, Damon doesn't know who the Western Alliance is going to send to rescue them. If they're just sending some regular military personnel, they don't have what it takes to face the bad guy, and because of his past, he won't endanger others.

Secondly, he's also an army officer, a man who's been trained for eight years to follow orders. Earlier in the book, when he's hurt and Ravyn takes the lead on their expedition, he thinks about his training, but this should be obvious throughout the story that he's military and been taught to obey and respect command structure. This is never spelled out as blatantly as I show his need to protect, but it's definitely hinted at in various spots.

The rescue team ends up being Spec Ops, and Damon as a man used to working in a team, thinks about taking these men with him to face the bad guy. But a lieutenant colonel is part of the group sent to bring him and Ravyn home, and as an officer used to following the chain of command, he asks permission to use the team to face the bad guy. Permission is denied, closing off another avenue. Remember, Damon is an officer and he's just been given a command.

Page 275: "Not one more word, Captain," Sullivan warned, voice low. "Just so you understand, this is a direct order. You are not taking a team to hunt the murderer. Is that clear?"

And for anyone who thinks Damon should disobey this order and take the team anyway, I refer you to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Article 90 and Article 92. The consequences for such an action are steep.

Why doesn't Damon just leave with the rescue team and let others handle the killer? Because it's not who he is. From his first appearance, I begin to show that this would never be an option for him. What happened in his past makes it impossible for him to walk away.

This is also on page 275: Damon realized if he didn't drop it, he'd be getting himself in even deeper trouble, but he couldn't let this one slide. He knew the Western Alliance would send in Spec Ops teams in an attempt to capture the alien. He also knew it would be a slaughter. If he kept quiet, he was as responsible for the deaths of those men as the murderer. (bold emphasis mine)

Since it's already been shown repeatedly that Damon refuses to cost anyone else their lives, this is a big point for him. (The reason why he thinks his leading a team after the killer now, would be more successful has to do with a mind shield that he and Ravyn are capable of throwing over each other. He thinks they can shield the other men and face the alien on more equal terms.)

So I've got a character who is hyper-responsible, who cannot tolerate the thought of costing any more people their lives--either directly or indirectly. This hero is extra protective of his woman and will not allow Ravyn to be in danger at all if there's anything he can do to prevent it. He's an army officer, trained to obey orders and he's been forbidden to take a team after the alien, closing another option. It leaves him with one choice--the only choice he can make and still be who he is.

Also on page 275: It was splitting hairs, but the colonel had not forbidden him to hunt alone. It would be easier in a team, but he could do it himself without disobeying the order of a superior officer. He wasn't leaving until he'd taken out the killer. End of chapter.

On page 291, Damon is off on his own and Ravyn has arrived, leaving him frustrated and angry. The dialogue here shows more reasons why he went off on his own.
"If you think you're facing this killer on your own, you better think again." (Ravyn speaking.)

"You'll only get in the way."

"Because I'm a coward."

"No, because you lack the training. Because," his eyes lost their remoteness, "I'll be too worried about you to fight."
Edited to add: Damon didn't believe he was going to his death. He had reasons why he believed he could defeat the alien. First, he had the mind shield protecting him, so the alien would be unable to influence him as his men had been influenced. Second, he was armed with an automatic rifle. Third, he is a highly trained Special Operations officer. Without the alien being able to use mind control, Damon saw no reason why he wouldn't emerge victorious.

My point with all these excerpts from Ravyn's Flight is to show the progression of character and how it affects plot. By the time Damon goes off to face the killer alone, the reader should understand the whys and how he felt there was absolutely no other choice he could make. This isn't something that sprang up in the middle or end of the book. This wasn't something I did to make it convenient for myself to end the story. This was who Damon is, and it started in the very first scene in his point of view.

My recommendation for writers is get to know your characters, know more about them than you'll ever put in your story. If your character is balking at doing something you'd like him or her to do, figure out why. Don't just roll ahead because it's convenient for your story line. If your characters wouldn't act a certain way, don't betray them. And don't betray your reader. Find an alternate way to tell the story, one that will fit who you've shown your characters to be. I bet if you do this, your story will end up being even stronger than the plot you have in your head.

MN Weather Report: 46 degrees. Wind Chill: 39 degrees.