January 19th, 2017

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The Curse of Clever Characters

I’m starting to see why it’s so tempting for authors to create characters who are Too Stupid to Live: It’s so much easier to write that way. If it’s totally in character for your people to just blunder into things or rush rashly into things, then it’s easier to get them into trouble. If your characters are really clever and thinking several steps ahead, considering possible consequences, planning their actions, and generally having common sense, they’re less likely to be able to get into the kind of trouble that makes for an interesting plot. There’s not much fun in a story that has a character see what the bad guy is up to, research it, come up with a plan that has several backups, and then execute that plan perfectly to achieve victory.

That means that if the characters are smart, the writer has to work a lot harder to make things interesting. There have to be unexpected snags the characters couldn’t have anticipated — events they weren’t aware of, betrayal by other characters, mechanical failure, badly timed weather events. This is the rare place when you can get away with using coincidence. The general rule is that you can only use coincidence to make things worse for your characters, never to make things easier. So you can use the coincidence of weather hitting at the worst possible time, the rare guard who shows up early for his shift change, a traffic accident that blocks the road and impedes the getaway, etc. Even the smartest person can’t plan for absolutely everything.

I keep running into this in the Rebels books because my main characters are so smart and logical. Verity doesn’t rush into things rashly. She does her research and thinks things through, trying to account for all contingencies. That means my first attempts at her carrying out a plan tend to be boring because her plans work. I have to go back and break her plans in ways that don’t make her look dumb.

And I’ve run into that yet again, only this time it’s both her and Henry, so we have two smart people, one of whom has extensive experience in pulling off elaborate plans and then getting away. Anything they come up with should work — and that’s a real problem for me. I have to come up with things they didn’t account for to force them to improvise. I have to be even smarter than my characters. It helps there that I can know things they don’t. I can make someone betray them, derail a train, cause an accident. But I still seem to always have the “the plan works” draft that has to be scrapped for the “unexpected things make everything more difficult” draft. At least this time around, I figured out what was happening only three pages in, and I removed the situation that made things too easy. That back door mysteriously vanished, like it never existed. No trace remains in the story.

I would say that I should give myself a break and write a dumb character, but I think I’d find that annoying for other reasons.