Monday, October 31, 2011

Making Things Happen in Fiction

I like character driven fiction. While I want interesting things to happen in fiction, I need to feel that those interesting things aren't outside of what the character would do. As a writer, unless you're a hack, achieving both believable characters and a satisfying story is one of your constant challenges.

So how do you ensure that things happen?

1. Create your protagonist carefully
You need to shape your protagonist according to what type of story you're trying to tell. If you make an anxiety-ridden recluse and then require Philip Marlowe style investigative work to move your story along, you're going to have a hard time. Now, that dynamic could make for some really interesting fiction, but understand that that's now what your story is about. It's no longer The Big Sleep but a Monk-type mystery.

2. Create external pressures
Sometimes, you can force your protagonist to do what you need done by presenting them with an alternative they can't abide. You then have a reluctant hero (at least for a time). BIG FAT WARNING: if you do this a lot, you will ruin your story. What's the problem?  A little something called "agency." If your character is constantly being shoved around by external forces, he lacks agency, or the ability to make and enact decisions. While an initial setup often requires a big outside force, the character should then be making decisions and solving problems. They need to act, not just react. Even stories that have protagonists that start out as passive wimps always have them reach a breaking point where they take their lives into their own hands.

But if your story is lagging and you can't get your character from point B to point C, drop a conflict on them and see what happens.

3. Deus ex machine
This is the next step along. Instead of forcing your character to do what you want by getting them to react to something, you don't even have them react: you just solve the problem for them. Stephen King is infamous for this, because he stays true to his characters, but then has to provide a satisfying ending (especially because he writes commercial fiction.) JK Rowling did this big time for at least books 2-4 of Harry Potter (the only ones I read). Through absolutely no planning or decision of his own, Harry Potter reaches into a hat and pulls out the weapon he needs to defeat the enemy, or he aims his wand and his wand has the ability to cancel out the wand of the much more powerful sorcerer, not due to anything he's done, but because the writer needs it to be so. (The writer needed it to be so because 1. for the audience to keep identifying with normal old HP he had to stay normal, not exceptional and 2. in the wand case the threat had to be terrifying for another few books.)

Personally, I'd rather provide an unsatisfying ending than resort to deus ex machine, and because I self-publish, that's totally my choice.

Any other tips for creating fiction in which things happen?

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