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.