Skip to content

Decisions, Decisions

Part of the fun of writing is – at least for me – figuring out how my characters will respond to the crap they land in. My basic method of plotting is “I have a character. They’re up to their eyeballs in shit. Let’s see how they get out of it.”

Obviously, me being the kind of extreme pantser I am, I’ve managed to internalize the basics because my plots usually work out reasonably well despite seeming awfully loose and not particularly well structured. Where I get into trouble is if I lose the thread of the piece in my head somewhere along the line.

It happens. I count a high ratio of completed stories to started stories as a good thing. It means I’m actually managing to hold a plot together long enough to finish the bloody things.

All of which is beside the point of how I make my characters make their own lives hell until they fix the messes they’re in.

It’s actually pretty simple. I figure out who they are. What kind of person they are. This is also something I’ll usually do at a subconscious level, to the point where I could tell someone how a particular character is likely to respond to any event, what their hot buttons are, what kind of personalities will grate on them… all those sorts of things. Knowing this, I can tweak the surroundings to keep them off-balance and push them into situations where they’re going to make bad decisions – and more crucially, readers will be able to see that they’re going to make bad decisions in those situations.

See, unlike real life, fiction needs to make sense. If you look at history and at real people, you’ll see example after example of smart people making ridiculously stupid decisions, of people doing things so bizarrely out of character you have to wonder what in the world they were on – and whether it’s possible to get any, because damn it would sell.

One could even go so far as to say that history chronicles the shitty decision making of most of the world – and that even in the crappiest books the worst imaginary rulers make more sense than a heck of a lot of historical leaders. One would be correct to say this – and also wrong.

That’s part of the fun of writing, too. Working out what kind of mindset and known factors would make a decision that our perspective tells us is a totally horrible idea look like not just the right thing to do, but the best thing to do. Figuring out how someone could have a mindset that to us isn’t just insane, it’s unthinkable.

Take the view that was common on both sides of the US Civil War, that black slaves and former slaves were inherently lesser beings. Some still considered enslaving them to be the wrong thing to do, but believed they would need to be cared for in some way and even that their descendants could never be proper Americans. Others believed that slavery was the best thing for them, because they couldn’t handle life without a master to guide them (we won’t go into how incorrect any of these beliefs were, of some of the more noxious notions – some of which were cheerfully transferred from the same beliefs about the Irish).

It’s even kind of understandable how beliefs like that can arise. Completely different cultures crashing together, one of them at an extreme disadvantage, will do that. To the dominant culture, the person from the subordinate culture will look like they can’t handle “normal” life – but history suggests that over several generations being expected to manage and held to the same standards as everyone else in the dominant culture, members of the subordinate culture will gain the skills they need and the mindset they need. Now try portraying that in a character somewhere in the middle of those several generations – regardless of which side of the cultural divide they happen to be on. It’s mind-bending.

This is one of the reasons a lot of historical fiction – and quite a lot of fantasy and science fiction – gets flying lessons from me. Modern motivations in a character from 500 years ago, or in a culture that reads like a mix of ancient China and Imperial Russia, or in some future society? Oh, hell no. That’s not a good way for the characters to make decisions. They don’t come from any late 20th century Western cultures, so of course they’re not going to think the way we do. They’re not going to see the same things we do.

For me, learning to think the way someone from a very different culture does, and working out how they’d make decisions, is one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole writing process.

  1. paladin3001 #

    Figuring out how people think. Yeah, I know this is hard. Luckily for me I have been an observer of my fellow mortals and I have seen some wonderful bad decisions. That’s without drawing upon my own experiences.
    Now as to historical thinking, there’s nothing more enlightening then reading memoirs or reminiscences of people that lived in those times. Sometimes they will say what they are thinking, other times they will write their general judgements of other people or if you are really lucky, cultures. Even modern memoirs are good for this as you can get into the mind set you need. As to future thought patterns, well it will depend on what you set up to get there I think.

    September 14, 2017
    • I’ve seen some truly spectacular life pyrotechnics – not just my own. It’s kinda useful in coming up with characters.

      September 14, 2017
  2. Side note: you can make giving your protagonist more 21st-century style ideas not automatic cause for flying lessons or deletion if you A. lampshade how off everyone, including friends of the protagonist, thinks he or she is, or B. give them 21st century style ideas on some matters, but not others.

    September 14, 2017
    • Luke #

      Or just the classic “drop a modern man into history via deus ex machina”.

      September 14, 2017
  3. thephantom182 #

    I gave my characters an unbeatable unfair advantage, and its still hard for them to do the right thing. They can do literally -anything-, and the biggest problem I have is figuring out some kind of hack to get around the normal bullshit that ails us all in this world. Hate, fear, vengeance, base stupidity, these are things that megatons per second can’t fix and can’t scare away.

    I also write by the seat of the pants. I have to write the story to find out what’s going to happen. Because you never know what Monkey King is going to come up with on the spur of the moment. He’s a pain in the ass that way. 🙂

    September 14, 2017
  4. There were supposed to be pants??

    I’m not only an extreme pantser, I write completely out of order. Bits come to me and are finagled into the timeline. Eventually I have a framework and the rest of the story arrives to fill the gaps.

    And my characters got themselves into this shitpile; they can bloody well dig themselves out… Okay, so maybe the cannibal aliens aren’t their fault. 😀

    September 14, 2017
  5. What’s really nice is when the character suggests solutions to a problem you didn’t even know you had. “Oh, they’d do this, and that means the story works so much better!” The one book I have out only got started after I realized that a character that I’d been thinking of as innocent was, in fact, guilty as charged, and that solved so many problems that I suddenly had a completely workable plot.

    September 14, 2017
    • I had a moment with that with my villains. “Wait… the female lead is pregnant with the perfect sacrifice they need to kill at eight days old… they’re not stupid enough to let her run free until the birth.” I HATE the “kidnap the loved ones” trope, bit damn was it just what I needed there and made the second half of the book work. -_-;

      September 14, 2017
  6. Luke #

    I can actually rationalize a culture that has bits of ancient Chinese and imperial Russia squashed together.
    Just tweak the Mongols a bit.
    Or set in one of the ‘stans along The Silk Road (need to supply a reason why Islam isn’t encroaching from the South, but that’s fairly basic).

    September 14, 2017
  7. “people doing things so bizarrely out of character you have to wonder what in the world they were on – and whether it’s possible to get any, because damn it would sell.” I sure hope so.

    September 14, 2017
  8. C4c

    September 14, 2017
  9. Or here’s one: during recent military duties in the Middle East, I learned to read a little bit of the Arabic alphabet, and a few words thereof. Imagine my surprise when not only is the “exotic Near East” overrun with American commercial brands, but even the Arabic labels, brands, and annotations turn out to be in English, merely transcribed into another writing system.

    Obviously, the American culture I come from is both Foreign there and a Culturally Dominant minority. But with all of our insular Yankee whining or “whinging” about “privilege” and “intersectionalism” and other unicorns of the PC, who has the cultural Privilege and Native Advantage over whom? It seems to me that the American coming to a foreign land like this is actually at a greater DIS-advantage than those of the “subordinated” native milieu. Some of it is the softness of cultural dominance and some of it is the appalling state of American schools, but having one’s own monolingual culture become a global trade language means that THEY, not I, are living bilingually and have access to each language’s culture and back-story, while I try to differentiate the vowels in an alphabet written entirely in cursive.

    September 14, 2017
  10. Draven #

    What especially gets flying lessons from me is late 20th early 21st century SJW thinking in ancient cultures or future ones… like climate change concerns, especially. That kind of stuff is going to date stories from this era as much as Linda Lee getting killed over 16 MB of hot RAM..

    September 14, 2017
  11. John R. Ellis #

    One of my favorite serials takes place in a time and culture where ritualized suicide is seen as both right and honorable by the characters. That such a thing would seem shocking, cruel, and harsh never occurs to them.

    Does it make for uncomfortable moments while reading?


    Does it accurately recreate that world and give a sense of what’s at stake?


    I like the way one writing guide put it: “Nothing breaks the illusion faster than a Vegan Viking.”

    September 17, 2017

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: