I’m not really a creative writer.
I know a lot of people who talk about writing like it’s some sort of almost magical experience. They sit down to write, and stories flow out of them like water or rainbows or metaphors. For me, it doesn’t work like that. I build my stories from the ground up, adding plot elements, characters, themes, settings, like bricks with logic and instinct as mortar, until I have something solid and serviceable that won’t fall down when I slam the door too hard.
Not to say that I don’t have my moments where inspiration strikes and everything falls magically into place. It’s just that those moments tend to come during the interior design phase of my little metaphor, after the foundation – and the walls – are firmly grounded.
I’ve got any number of little tips and tricks I’ve collected, learned, or invented over the years when it comes to setting those first stones, and part of what I enjoy best about reading is learning new ones. About two years ago I stumbled onto the maxim that’s been at the heart of character development for me ever since, three questions that can make or break almost any action in a work:
- Why does the character think they’re doing what they’re doing? (Occasionally swapped out with: ‘Does the character know why they’re doing what they’re doing?’)
- Why is the character actually doing what they’re doing?
- Why do you, the author, have the character doing what they’re doing?
I might go into this little holy trinity in more depth later, because every time I go through it I find it raises more questions than it answers, but I know I’m not the only writer to think of them. Today, though, I stumbled across a fourth question that is, I think, almost as important as the other three. It acts more as a corollary to question #1, but opens a whole new set of doors as soon as you step through:
- What is the context, such that the character is both able to imagine and capable of doing what they’re doing?
It’s a question that comes up a lot when dealing with villains, or at least it’s a question that ought to. A peaceful town where the population seems to care about each other and value love, justice, and puppydogs is plagued by That One Guy who kicks kittens, molests tavern wenches, and threatens any farm boy who even looks at him wrong with a whipping or even death. A trained army officer with accolades and a dozen battles under his belt decides that the mission can go to Hell because his girlfriend is missing and she is the only thing that matters. A ranking official in a city where foreigners are uneducated and treated like dirt ignores a well-spoken foreigner when she walks into his barracks bringing a message of terrible danger, because “what would an uneducated barbarian know?”.
There are, of course, instances where those things happen. Some people have power and influence enough to be above the law, and are able to violate both official rules and custom with impunity. Sometimes, people make rash decisions against their better judgement. Some people, when faced with a strange situation, would rather pretend it doesn’t exist than contemplate its implications.
But not very many.
The problem is that these bullies, hotheads, and jerks come from the same stock as the rest of the world. They were raised knowing the same laws, exposed to the same context. They might have gone their own way when they were younger, deciding that the adults around them just didn’t understand or hiding their beliefs from the people who could stop them, but by the time a person rises to some degree of prominence they tend to be under a considerable amount of scrutiny. A man who threatens to kill passing farmboys in a place where murder is illegal should, by any logic I can think of, be under the close watch of the local law enforcement. A man who regularly beats people for no reason would be in jail, unless there’s some damn good reason presented to explain otherwise.
The same goes for the soldier who abandons his calling whenever something tugs on his heartstrings, or the officer who ignores advice without bothering to check if maybe he’s going to get everyone killed. Anyone so willing to abandon common sense for either firebrand emotion or haughty disbelief would probably have made a major mistake early in their career and faced the consequences for it. While these types of characters are clearly designed to offer me, the reader, a point of tension, when they’re thrown in without any explanation for how they’ve been able to survive their own idiocy I just find myself wondering what’s wrong with the world.
Antagonists are necessary, and it’s not reasonable to expect a writer to plot out the full life story of every character who crosses their pages … but no character is above the application of basic logic. Whenever someone does something, especially something that will have a major impact on a main character, it’s important to stop and think:
- What would happen if the protagonist tried something like that? – Generally speaking, the protagonist would usually find themselves in deep trouble faster than they could blink.
- Could anyone else get away with it? – Maybe any noble can treat any peasant like dirt, maybe all military officers are immune to making rational decisions.
- Why, or why not? – If the answer is “because if everyone acted like this, society would fall apart” it’s a pretty good sign that someone’s behaving unreasonably.
- So what makes this character an exception? Why haven’t they suffered lasting consequences? – Does the king owe him a debt? Is she blackmailing people? Does the city have a ‘one idiot per company’ policy in its municipal guard?
- What are the other implications of that? – Anyone who can bully whoever they want probably does, all the time. They’re probably dangerous, terrifying, and people around them should treat them as such.
Obviously, not all of these questions are going to get answered on the page each time … but I think if more people stopped to think about them more frequently, those annoying petty villains might get a little bit less obnoxious.
Besides: what’s more satisfying to read, the hero suffering under and barely managing to overcome a stuffed-shirt bully boy, or the hero matching wits against a credible threat and triumphing?