My LEAST favorite part of being in a writer’s group is when you’re sitting there and watching everyone pick apart your latest work, and someone points out that whatever you made your character do is…out of character. And then they look very sanctimonious and shrug and say, “So when this happens…so what?”
I absolutely hate it. Those two words make me want to toss the table. I hate it because whenever someone asks that question, it’s usually for a really darn good reason. SO. WHAT. So why does that matter to the character? Why does it direct their choices? So it happens. So what?
It matters because everything the main characters do in a book needs to be directed by two things, and lead to one thing. Altogether, these factors impact how the readers are going to be able to invest themselves into the story and buy into the plot.
All main character behavior is driven by two things: their greatest fear, and their greatest desire. It’s not always spelled out, but if it’s done right, you can see it. Take for example my recent review For Butter or for Worse. Leo’s inherited his father’s line of comfortable Italian eateries but isn’t himself a chef or a restauranteur. He’s also suffered from panic attacks since his father’s death. His greatest fear is being exposed, both as a fraud and as being weak. His greatest desire is to find a place he belongs. Ultimately, he gets what he most desires, but only after facing his greatest fears. By making sure Leo’s shaped with that in mind, the author is able to create character depth, tension (will he ever get what he needs?), and an emotional connection with the reader.
What about externally driven plots? Well, that is an EXCELLENT question. I’m so glad I asked it.
Even if the main characters are captured by a band of pirates and their relationship is strong (so the plot is driven by what’s happening TO them and not BETWEEN them), we the readers still need to know what motivates these characters. What are they able to see that others can’t? What chances will they be willing to take to win? And really, just how awful can things get for these characters? We need to know these things–it can be subtle, but it has to be there.
Ultimately, trying to avoid the things they are most afraid of leads to the black moment. This moment in the plot has different names, and it can hit at different points in the story. Often it’s where the second and third acts meet, or around 75-80% of the way through the plot.
The Black Moment has to involve the characters facing those fears they tried so hard to avoid. So essentially, the author has to take these characters they’ve lovingly crafted and put them through hell. (Mua ha ha…)
And in romance, THIS is super important–by this time in the story, we’ve seen them grow together, but in a limited way. The Black Moment is the moment we need to see them grappling with the realization that they might not make it, or that they ultimately should not be together.
And what about books with the Fated Mate trope? Well, that gets a lot more interesting and multi-faceted, but it could be that they’re looking at facing the rest of their lives (or forever, if they’re immortal) miserable together, or one of them could face death.
So what, though? Well, we say that in romance, the characters need to grow separately and together in the end. Their relationship has to stir transformation, and that transformation ultimately needs to bring them through what they’ve been fearing and lead them to what they most want.
The books I’ve found that are most satisfying tend to avoid making another person be their greatest desire. I think deep down it’s not really that satisfying to see someone go through hell exclusively to be with another flawed, raw person. But it COULD be that a character’s greatest desire is to find a home, and they find that in someone else. Or, to be seen and loved as they are. To fully open themselves up to another person. Those are valid things to want, to sacrifice for and to work towards.
When we see this executed poorly in books, it can run from being very obvious (a character feels flat and boring, and you don’t care what happens to them) to being very subtle. Sometimes we’ll feel like a decision or action taken doesn’t fit the character we’ve come to know and love. Or we’ll feel like the couple shouldn’t actually end up together. My favorite is the “unreliable narrator”–if the characters show no self awareness, and that’s not a deliberately written flaw they need to overcome in the Black Moment, we can’t trust the story at all. And that can feel very frustrating. Erin really can’t stand it when characters write off love forever after one bad relationship–that’s not necessarily poor character development, but she’s probably sensing some weakness in the character development. After all, there’s a huge difference between “my last boyfriend broke my heart and so I’ll never love again” and “I grew up in a perfect home with loving parents and never expected someone to betray me like my last boyfriend did, so it’s made me question my ability to trust and read people and I don’t know what to do with these feelings.” Same basic idea, but with a lot more vulnerability and backstory.
How does this impact what reviewers are looking for in books? I think it varies from reviewer to reviewer, but just because we know what’s coming doesn’t mean we can’t squee with joy over how it’s being executed. I always try to figure out what’s driving the characters, because it helps me impartially dissect the plotline better. I’ve read a lot of books I didn’t personally care for, but I knew that the book was well executed and that my personal preferences needed to take a back seat in the review. The characters have well-planned motivators, those motivators (the fears and desires) bump along together to generate tension, the tension leads to a satisfying Black Moment, and then the resolution is solid. Being able to pinpoint these factors can also help me specify where other things are going wrong with the characters, and if you’re going to criticize something an author has painfully birthed and is willing to share with the world for all to judge, it’s important to be specific and provide evidence that your criticisms are fair.
So, essentially, I try to do precisely what ground my gears in the writer’s groups–I ask, “so what?” I just try really hard not to sound sanctimonious and gleeful when I do it.
Previously in Hearts and Crafts: