Through their own flaws

February 26, 2016

Hardship is the father of tension, the mother of drama, and the handmaiden of despair, or something like that. So how does an author go about making a situation more difficult for their characters?

One way is to arbitrarily throw challenges at them. At the start of a story, this is fine—shit’s gotta start somewhere, and it’s fine to start when said shit has already hit one or more fans. But later on, the author can just make things happen. They don’t even need to be foreshadowed, because sometimes in life things really do just happen. We authors are the gods of our worlds, and as Eric Cartman might say, we can do what we want.

But that’s not the best way. Or at least, if it’s used too often, readers will get wise to the author’s game. Fortunately, there’s a better way.

I first had this method elucidated to me while watching Moviebob’s Really That Good: The Avengers video. In it, he rightly points out that Loki’s plans don’t make a whole lot of sense. To quote (around minute 21):

His plan doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from a logical standpoint, since, if the scepter lets him control people’s minds, couldn’t he just stop over at the UN on the right day and be running most of the planet in an hour?

(I didn’t need to quote that, but it’s a good point, and the video’s a good watch.)

Moviebob goes on to note that, while Loki’s plans don’t make logical sense, they do make emotional sense. Loki’s a diva, as the film helpfully points out. He’s also the living embodiment of a mythological god, and even the non-trickster gods weren’t big on logic or sanity. Loki doesn’t do boring and logical. It’s not his style.

Loki’s decisions, which end up squandering a potentially insurmountable advantage and directly lead to his adversaries having the opportunity to defeat him, are informed by his character. The film makers didn’t have to arbitrarily make things more difficult for him to raise the stakes and set up the final confrontation. Loki did it for them (figuratively speaking).

This works for heroes as well, or in this case, anti-heroes. In Deadpool—I swear I don’t only watch superhero movies, they’re just good examples for an action/adventure author like me—the titular Merc with a Mouth forgets his ammo and weapons in a cab not once, but twice. This has the effect of making both the opening and climactic battles more difficult for him, but it doesn’t feel arbitrary because it’s very much in keeping with his screwball character. Deadpool ain’t a meticulous guy. He’s barely got his head screwed on at the best of times. What’s more, there’s precedent within the movie, so when it happens the second time, it’s not frustrating. It’s just Deadpool being Deadpool. His personality informs all of his actions, and its one of his own flaws that ends up making things more difficult for him.

Another example, this time from a more straight-up hero: Ash Williams from Ash vs Evil Dead. (P.S. watch it, it’s great.) Ash is full of both personality and flaws, and his flaws are what drive the entire plot. He’s his own worst enemy, and from the first episode to the last, it’s usually his (bad) decisions that are making things worse for the heroes. Which has the effect of making the drama less frustrating, because they have plenty of bad luck too, but it doesn’t seem so unfair when they keep screwing themselves over.

Whether this is right for a particular story depends. In horror it can certainly help, though I think horror stories can also work when characters do everything right and still have the world/baddies/whatever fuck them over. That’s pretty horrifying, if you ask me.

But for action/adventure stories like the ones I love to write, this is undoubtedly a great tool. It means characters can do the stupid (or simply sub-optimal) things that make the story more tense, exciting, and fun not because they have to (from a plot perspective), but because that’s what they’d do. The trick is to build the personality in from the get-go, and see where it take you.

As always, thank you for using my Amazon Affiliate link (info).

By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.

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