“Stop Digging!” Which is great if you are a real person, but there are times when you need a character to keep digging. Or when a character is bound and determined to keep digging no matter what you, the mere author, want. So, do you wince and wait to see how bad it’s going to be, or do you push the dirt in on top of the character and walk away while acting innocent?
Now that you have depleted your supply of overripe, throwable produce, allow me to elucidate. The character is/was a teenaged male, quite sure of himself and absolutely determined to act like he thought a noble should act while on military campaign. In other words, starting to move from minor-irritation to, “He tripped and fell down the mountain, Sergeant. Really.” That’s not going to work with the story. I needed him into a hole to force him to realize that he doesn’t know it all, but not in such a way that would get him or others killed. That was coming later . . .
Enter the world’s version of fire ants, and our hero not looking where he’s going to, ahem, “answer nature’s call.” Several dozen very painful bites later, some of which are going to make riding even more uncomfortable, he returns to camp chastened and wet (from tossing himself and his trousers into a creek to be certain that all the bugs are gone, and to ease the pain.) The men know exactly what happened. He pretends nothing happened. He rides despite the pain, and earns himself a lot of credit for not whining about it. Valuable lesson learned, and one that readers can nod and think, “Yep, that’s the best way to learn that lesson.” And it is in character, which is important.
I didn’t hand the character an idiot ball. Anyone who has been around teenaged guys knows how they act, so the action and result fit the character. Later on, he runs his mouth and ends up in a fight that leads to both parties getting dunked in a ice-covered horse trough by adult males (“you both need to cool off.” Splash.) The reader can see him digging the hole, and knows that, yep, here comes the dirt on top of him. Again, in character, and fits the story, and teaches a lesson.
- Is this hole necessary? It can be. To humble a character, to show personality and skills, to deal with a jerk who has been begging for the karma-bus to make a detour while the Main Character watches in fascinated horror (or while fighting off laughter).
- No? Then why the hole? Sometimes it is just the character being himself/herself/itself and all you can do is write along and figure out who gets to throw in the ladder or the dirt. Sometimes humiliating a character is NOT going to accomplish the desired goal, or move the plot along. Be sparing of the idiot ball, please. Your readers will thank you, and will keep reading, and buy the next story.
- How bad will it get? Lethal? That might fit the story (like the abrupt end of a D&D campaign I heard about from a disgruntled player. A different player’s character yelled, “Hey, I bet there’s nothing in here!” aaaaand lost the saving roll after waking up a large number of very nasty creatures. The entire party died. The DM wasn’t pleased, the other players really were not pleased. No, the offender’s name was not Leroy.) Or it might just be painfully awkward, mildly humiliating, or physically painful but not dangerous in the long run.
- What does the character learn? If nothing, then readers will know that Something Bad Will Happen, one way or another. Once your MC claws herself out of the self-dug hole, she should recognize things the next time she sees soft soil and an oh-so-convenient shovel.
Bad, awkward, inelegant, stupid stuff happens to everyone. Frequently because we didn’t pay attention, think ahead, or bother to ask. Or assumed. Or listened to the Good Idea Fairy, which often ends with a great story several decades after the fact, but not well at the time.