Sunday, July 21, 2013

Mistakes, Stupidity, Regrets, Losing it, Failures, and Disagreement.

Lately, I've been thinking about things that move plot along and develop characters at the same time. I thought I had a good introduction for this post in my head, but it escapes me now, so we'll move on to my ideas, observations, and hypotheses.

Mistakes and Stupidity:

People make mistakes. Fact of life. And at some point, everyone has done something that looks stupid, be that in the eyes of the character himself, another character, or the reader. Now, I don't think stupidity for the sake of stupidity would move the plot on, but an act of stupidity that lets the characters learn something new, or sets them back a bit on their mission, can move the plot along. Mistakes work the same way.

Let's use an example. I stole this one from a book, but to avoid spoilers, I've changed the names and situation. (Bonus points if you figure out what book I stole it from.)

Kat's assassin group is very low on morale. They have a very, very small chance of beating Lucy's assassin troop to killing the king and getting lots of money. So, Kat gives a grand speech, blowing things slightly out of proportion and exaggerating the greatness of her own group, boosting morale. They'll succeed in their plan to sabotage Lucy's group. Yay for them. Then, Kat has to go take care of something in another city, and she leaves Yolanda in charge of the group. Yolanda, greatly impressed by Kat's speech, takes the group on a practice run, with the thought of taking out one of Lucy's best, unbeatable assassins. But, it all goes wrong, and half of Kat's group dies, and now the police are after the half that is alive. BUT, the police are after Lucy's group too, and they have more leads on Lucy's group. When Kat gets back, the original plan is in shambles and she only has half as many assassins, but the commission for killing the king is all hers, as Lucy had to leave town on the run.  She got what she wanted in a convoluted, twisted way that made her sick.

I love this example. Kat gave that speech to make things better, and it did, but in a way that didn't turn out very well. One could say that what she did was a stupid mistake in retrospect. What Yolanda did was outright foolishness. She left their group exposed, and got half of it killed. She shouldn't have let the speech go to her head.

Not only is that a great plot twist, but seeing how Kat and the others deal with it adds depth to their characters.  Do they berate themselves for acting foolishly? Do they blame others? Etc.

Mistakes made out of ignorance work well too. Pollard wants to win Patricia's heart, so he gets her a silver bracelet. Problem? Patricia is a werewolf and allergic to silver. Pollard doesn't know that, and when Patricia puts on the bracelet she reacts violently and her secret is exposed, and she nearly dies.

Or Mary does the right thing saving a little girl from death. But the little girl is actually an evil shape-shifter, who turned into a little girl so Mary would save her. Now that the shape-shifter will live, she can begin her crusade to rule the world.

Mistakes made for the "greater good" that are actually just manipulations by the bad guys to get the heroes to act in their favor are awesome. Heart-wrenching, and potentially fling-the-book-across-the-room worthy, but fascinating.


How a character reacts to something they regret can move the plot along, and adds to character depth. Viola might have been headstrong and brave before, but after watching someone die because of something she indirectly did, she may see those traits as vices. However, Jenkins was counting on her headstrong-ness to get something done, and now she won't be a part of his plan.  OR maybe she can't deal with the thought that she caused this person's death, so she tries to ignore that fact, and as a result becomes more reckless, trying to prove to herself that it wasn't her fault.

Losing control:

Sometimes when people are caught in a maelstrom of extreme emotion, they lose it. Words are flung like projectiles from a trebuchet, things smashed or blown up, alliances broken, plans changed. What happens when control is lost and how the characters deal with it can add to both character development and plot.


Characters that always do everything right and whose plans always turn out better than planned are boring. But, a character whose plans always fail, and who gets constantly forced back and can't move forward is boring too. The plot must go on! If it's trying to go up a down-escalator, and continually gets knocked back down to the bottom, the reader starts to think "Is anything actually going to happen that actually makes a difference?".

I quite like the going up a down-escalator simile, actually. The characters and plot should travel upwards. It'll be tricky, and they'll slip and fall back sometimes, they may even fall back to the bottom (a black moment), but things must happen. There must be changes. They must get closer to the top, and, in the end, actually cross that threshold. Hard work lost can be very powerful, but that work must actually achieve something for that to be so.

Partial failures are good for this. Plans that go wrong half-way through. The end result is achieved, at least in part, but with unforeseen consequences. Example time. (This one also stolen and modified from something I read.)

The characters need to get over a rainforest. So, they steal an airplane. Half-way over the rainforest, however, thunder booms and lightning fractures the sky. Visibility is practically non-existent, and they go down. When they all gain consciousness again (maybe some of them don't), they're over the rainforest, so they are one step closer to their goal, but they're injured, without transportation, AND they are in enemy territory.

Much more fun than if they all die or make it over the rainforest in one piece.

Disagreement/conflict with other characters:

Characters that always get along are boring. *Glares at her own characters.* People disagree. Another fact of life. They disagree about ice cream, philosophy, politics, what colors are in this season, whose dragon is cooler.

You've probably heard this before, and if you're a writer and you haven't, write it down in big red letters and tape it somewhere where you'll see it all the time: In story writing, conflict is everything. Characters who have conflicting personality traits, conflicting life philosophies, or conflicting ideas about how to take the city are far more fun to read and write about than ones that get along about everything.  They can openly disagree, secretly disagree, whatever.

Now, of course the villain will disagree and conflict with the hero. But, even close friends and family disagree about things. The heroes companions will disagree with the hero and each other about something. Maybe some of the companions don't even get along with each other.  Adding this kind of conflict adds to the story. Example time again!

Joy needs Horace to hack into a website to get a piece of information. But, Fred overhears, and he doesn't want them to hack that particular website. They can hack any other website, just not that one. Joy and Horace protest that this site is the only one with the piece of information they need.  Fred can't abide that, and they argue. Joy doesn't give in, and Horace listens to Joy. Fred loses it, and walks out. He quits. He's not going to be part of their plan anymore.

This adds good character development, and adds a plot twist.

EDITED TO ADD: Be sure to read the comments on this post, as there are more interesting thoughts on character development down there.

Well, that turned out to be longer than I expected. I think that's all I have to say for now.  What do you think? Have anything to add, or that you disagree with? Have you made other observations? Let me know in a comment!

And a good day/evening/afternoon/whatever to you.