The First Rule of Holes

“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?

It depends.

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.

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Image by Volker Glätsch from Pixabay

8 thoughts on “The First Rule of Holes

  1. Sometimes, the hole is foresghadowing. Which would be nice of my back brain to let me know when I’m trying to figure out why I’m even writing it at the time….

  2. “The Idiot Ball” isn’t meant to cover every time a character acts like an idiot. It’s meant to describe times when the character acts like an idiot for no better reason than to advance the plot because the author couldn’t think of anything better. When a character does something stupid because it’s the natural thing for him to do, that’s just being in character. To use a couple of examples from stories I’ve reread recently:

    (1) A young woman gets stuck without gas on a deserted highway and finds that her cell phone is out of batteries. Now, said young woman was established as being incredibly irresponsible, failing to keep track of her purse, not making her car payments on time, drinking and driving on the grounds that it would make her uncool to ask for a ride, etc. So I totally believe she would forget to charge her cell phone. It was very convenient for the plot, yes, but it wasn’t a case of an idiot ball.

    (2) An experienced “black widow” sends her latest husband out to get killed–and “forgets” to have him make a will benefitting her before she does so. This woman has supposedly married and killed about half a dozen men, has a literal mind-control spell on her husband, knew full well that he wasn’t going to come back alive from the errand she sent him on, and I’m supposed to believe that she would just ignore the will. No. It’s obvious that this happened only because the plot requires the man’s daughter from a previous marriage to be his heir, and the widow has definitely been handed the idiot ball.

    1. That’s exactly the point I was trying to make. 🙂 I apologize if I wasn’t clear – if the foolishness is in character, or isn’t quite in character but is completely believable, then it’s not really the Idiot Ball. When a writer breaks a character in order to move the plot along and readers/viewers boggle and wonder how much worse it’s going to get, then the Idiot Ball is in play.

    2. Overconfidence can be amazing, particularly if you’re experienced at something. But it has to be foreshadowed.

      Perhaps she thinks she can mindcontrol the daughter.

  3. Off topic.

    I will (eventually) get used to the reworked format. With the exception that it is quite annoying to have to open the comments to find out who wrote the post.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: