(Characters) Doing the Wrong Thing: Why It Feels So Right
The interesting thing is almost never the “right” thing . . . at least in books! If your heroes are empathic, moral, insightful creatures who always make the right choices, then everything happens so predictably. So quickly. Leaving the reader so . . . unsatisfied.
For example. Say there’s this sacred sword that no one is supposed to touch. Your hero walks by and just can’t resist. Whether it’s because he dreams of becoming just like the hero that first wielded the sword, or because he thinks it will give him the edge he needs to defeat the villain, or even just because he’s like: “Cool sword, dude. Legends are hogwash.” Either way you cut it, your hero made a choice that was delightfully misguided, the mountain of the sacred sword starts collapsing, and you find yourself in a hero-driven story—with a heaping bonus of heroic growth potential.
Now say your hero respects the sacred sword and . . . leaves it there. Along with my interest. And the story. Sucks, right? I mean, sure, you can always throw a villain in there to bring it—trying to steal the sword, or actually stealing the sword, or even trying to destroy the sword--but then your hero is in a perpetual battle of stopping things from happening. A constant struggle to keep the villain from making things interesting. And that, frankly, is the kind of thing that makes me root for the villain. At least the villain has some direction, has some vision, has some damn growth potential! At least the villain is being interesting. The flawless hero? Boring. The epitome of the status quo. Not someone I can identify with, and not someone that’s going to be fun to read about.
Now, I’m not saying you have to make all your heroes bumbling idiots who pull things out when they shouldn’t. Or that your villain shouldn’t try to steal the sword. I’m saying that if your hero does respect the sword, and villain does steal it, then it is most interesting if the hero makes some mistakes—with dire, hilarious, or inventive consequences. Here’s a couple ways to help make that happen.
Push Your Hero’s Buttons
Buttons. Everyone has them. Nobody wants them. And few can control their reaction to a good button-mashing, even if they know what’s going down. It all adds up to an excellent way to add tension to your character interactions as well as emotional reasoning to your heroes. And once all your characters are outfitted with buttons, you can begin to pursue that holy grail of character-driven novels. See, you won’t have to guess how your hero would react to a given situation—you will know. Along with how all your other characters will react to the same situation, not to mention each other’s reactions, resulting in beautiful, compelling complications.
So, spend some time thinking: What are your hero’s weaknesses? How do they want so desperately to be perceived? And what character interactions would drive them up a wall? Some characters need to be perceived as intelligent, or in control, or skilled, or powerful, or independent. Any suggestion to the contrary, either through snippy dialogue, paranoid reactions to patronizing looks, or even actual failures, can result in delightfully irrational actions—or poorly calculated risks in the name of necessity.
What Are Your Hero’s Secret Ambitions?
What does your hero want? And I’m not just talking about world peace. I’m talking about what they want their life to look like, what they want themselves to look like, and what secret dreams curl within their solid gold hearts--dreams they would sacrifice almost anything to achieve. These can link up with the actual plot of the book, but often, these are separate from the plot, forming the backbone of the hero’s character arc and informing how the hero reacts to the events of the novel.
Your hero’s dreams are a fantastic lever for a cunning plot or villain. Because those dreams? They are an ice cold reminder that your hero is not your plot. Your hero is not “defeating-the-Dark-Lord-Sam” or “fighting-the-Empire-Erin” or anything of the sort. Your hero is all-too human. They have a life and goals outside their heroic quest—and, in most cases, they can choose to lay down their sword and live a different life. There is almost always an easier road than the heroic one. And plot twists and villain machinations that remind the hero that they are making the choice to suffer—that they could just . . . stop . . . are powerful. Particularly if the quest isn’t going so well at that moment, and the temptations of another dream are close. After all, why should it be you that sacrifices it all? You’re a person too! Until a hero finds their own answers for that—and sometimes, even after they do—there will be moments when the wrong choice is made out of pure humanity. And how much more relatable your hero is for it—and how much more interesting their story.
Complex World + Complex Characters = No Easy Answers
The more complex your world and your characters are, the harder it will be for a character to uncover the “right” answer—and more likely that they’ll go with the “interesting” answer. Especially when truths are hidden or long forgotten or clouded with misinformation, and your hero is empathetic enough to identify with multiple sides of an issue. Or to identify with only one side, but disagree with its methods. Or to agree with one faction of one side’s views—but not the other factions. Or whatever—it’s complicated! For this reason, idealistic, empathetic characters make awesome heroes. They can make the wrong decisions for the right reasons—and do the right things the wrong way. But they are reflective and always striving—and they feel guilt when they find out they’ve taken the darker road.
But that’s just the “complex world” part of the equation. You’ll also need to make sure that all of your characters have strong motivations. Villains rarely think of themselves as villainous—so what is their justification for their actions? And if they are straight up evil forces of nature—a villainous type that has its own delicious appeal--then let them be clever enough to set things up so that there are no easy answers to defeating them. That beating them takes sacrifice from one hero or another—or that some of the heroic forces are tempted into villainous tactics by the sheer impossibility of the task. All this adds up so that no matter how clever your hero is, they’re likely to do a few wrong things in the pursuit of the right thing—making everything far more interesting.
So don’t be so strict with your hero! Let them be themselves, apart from the plot. Make them struggle with their destiny, so that their striving is more admirable. And let them make the wrong decisions—for all the right reasons. Your plot—and your readers—will thank you for it.