Raise your hand if you have ever uttered these words:
“I would never…!”
I said them a few days ago loudly, emphatically, and then added “EVER!” just in case.
Shortly afterward, two thoughts occurred to me. The first…
How often do we use this sentiment in response to a situation we know absolutely nothing about?
In my case, I was responding to a story about a family choosing to sell their beloved pet dog.
Of course, Henry, my dog, knows I would never, EVER sell him—
Or would I?
- What if I fell on hard times?
- What if I had to choose between selling my dog or feeding my child?
In the case of the aforementioned story—after I boldly exclaimed: “I would never sell my dog!”—I was informed that this was, unfortunately, the case. A young family needed money more than they needed another—no matter how beloved—mouth to feed.
Needless to say, I felt like a complete jerk. I don’t remember what I said next because suddenly the words weren’t spilling out of my mouth quite as fast. Like many, I made an ass of myself by jumping to a conclusion before knowing the whole story. The worst part is that I’ve been on the other end of this sentiment.
I should have known better.
However, the reason I wrote this post isn’t to beat myself up over just another of my many character flaws (There are plenty of future posts for that). Rather, I wanted to talk about your characters.
Yes, you, the writer—Your characters.
For, of course, if your characters only did what they wanted to do, there would be no reason to write their stories. They would never set out on adventures. They would never hurt people they love, nor love people they never dreamed of loving. They would never save the world, for they would never, EVER have the courage.
So don’t be afraid to ask them: What would you never, ever consider doing?
- I would never leave home. (Bilbo Baggins)
- I would never consider transferring my consciousness into an artificial intelligence. (We Are Legion (We Are Bob) – The Bobiverse)
- I would never marry someone like that… (Just about every Jane Austen novel. And, just about every romance novel.)
- I would never have the courage to… (You get the idea.)
And once you know the answer…
- I would never leave home, because I don’t like adventures.
Then you need to know what force or reason propels them to do it anyway.
- If I don’t leave home, all the people I love will die.
Because that’s your story!
The reason your characters suddenly choose to do something they never, ever thought they would do, is what makes your story compelling and, hopefully, relatable. (i.e. haven’t we all done something we never imagined we would do?)
Finally, just as your characters must loudly, emphatically exclaim they would never, ever do something, they must also, in the end, just as strongly proclaim they had to do it.
- To fall in love
- To save the world
- To leave home…
And isn’t it our job, as writers, to make sure our readers believe them?