Friday, January 18, 2013

7 Ways Your Characters Can Screw up Their Decisions

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Making the wrong choice isn't good in life, but it's great for plotting.

Lifehack had a great post about how not to mess up your decisions. The writer in me instantly saw what a great guide it was to crafting characters with bad decision-making skills, which of course make for more interesting plots. Nobody likes a smarty pants.

As people, we want to make the right choice, so it's only natural that those are the choices that first come to us as we write. But doing the right thing doesn't always cause wonderful conflict (though when it does it's writing gold). 

Characters shouldn't act like people who've had three weeks to consider their options just because the author took that long to write the scene. A decision made in the heat of the moment isn't the same as one made with weeks to consider.

So here are some handy ways your character can make the wrong choice next time they're faced with an all-important decision:

1. Be impulsive

One of my favorites, as my protagonist, Nya, is always jumping in before she thinks. This is a helpful flaw for characters who need to learn patience, or who don't always consider how their actions affect others. Snap judgments, quick decisions, charging full-speed ahead without thinking beyond the now. If you need to get your protagonist in over her head fast, consider this mistake.

2. Make decisions under pressure

When you think about it, you should always force your characters to do this, because a ticking clock is a reliable way to raise stakes and increase tensions in a story. But as Lifehack says, pressure can come in subtle forms, and that can carry over into your novel. Small pressures build to big explosions, so if you need your characters to blow their tops, try looking for small ways to eat at them leading up to that explosion.

(More on adding small problems to your plot)

3. Over-analyze everything

If characters are so busy trying to figure out the right thing to do, they might totally miss the opportunity to act at all. Lost chances a character can regret later make wonderful seeds to plant early on in a story, and can cause huge emotional trauma during that Dark Moment of the Soul at the end of act two. Over analyzing can also work to sneak in possible dangers and outcomes, helping to raise tensions and keep things unpredictable since so many bad things might occur.

4. Assume you know it all

Perfect for the protagonist who needs to learn a valuable lesson about working with others. Let him be convinced he's always right, doesn't need advice from anyone else, and he has no problem stating that fact to anyone who will listen. The fall here when reality strikes will be devastating, and all the more satisfying.

(More on making your characters make tough choices)

5. Never consider all the options

An informed protagonist is a boring protagonist. Choices made without the benefit of a solid foundation of knowledge can lead a myriad of delightful screw ups. Maybe there's no time for research, or there's something he just doesn't want to think about (denial, much?). Missing key information can send a character into a mess of their own making.

6. Never ask advice

Who needs a long-winded story from some old geezer about how he did it when he was younger? Times change, and what worked then surely won't work now. This is a flaw for the protagonist who doesn't respect tradition or the consul of others. The more people you piss off, the fewer there will be when you need them at the climax.

(More on crafting choices that matter)

7. Don't make alternative plans

Who needs Plan B? An overconfident protagonist might never see the need for backup plans, because everything is going to go just like she expects. So when things start falling to pieces, she's very likely incapable of wise action to correct her mistake. Which causes events to snowball, getting her into more and more delicious trouble.

(More on making the most of the worst than can happen)

Making smart choices is vital in the real world, but making conflict-creating bad choices is a must for the fictional world. While you don't want your characters to be stupid (unless it's by design), mistakes leads to growth, and a good character grows by the end of the tale. Try adding a few bad decision-making skills to your characters and enjoy the fun.

How often do your characters make bad decisions? 

Find out more about conflict in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Thanks for that article. It's inspiring to read all those possible flaws I can torture my characters with later ;)

    I think I might have flaw number 8: Pride. I have one character who knows what the right choice would be (or at least the simplest way to solve a problem) but he ist too proud to do it and so sticks to the wrong decisions knowingly that it will cost him a lot. He created a certain image of himself and that right choice means he would have to change (become more humble for example).It will bring him into trouble until he finds himself confronted with a choice that is important enough for him to let go of his pride.

  2. I love this article because it sounds like my decision-making process at its best. LOL Thanks Janice. This helps me today.

  3. Fantastic post! I typically don't write characters who are "stupid," but we all make stupid decisions sometimes. These tips are the perfect way to make characters do the same thing without seeming out of character or too convenient. :)

  4. Very helpful post. It's got my brain working because one of my character definitely needs more conflict. She's a bit yawn inspiring at the moment. Thanks.

  5. Great post Janice. I've used the impulsive kid before as a way to make mistakes. Now I'm trying the person who thinks she can handle it all. You're right. Our characters do need to make bad decisions. Like us, unfortunately, but true.

  6. Frauke, oo that's a great one.

    Cat, lol. Glad to help :)

    Jami, we totally do. We could probably just think back to the dumb things we've done and flesh out the list.

    Jennifer, hope it helps! I've found crafting an inner conflict that opposes the external problem a great way to add conflict as well.

    Natalie, I like that. I'm kinda doing the same thing now that I think about it. Nya was all impulse, but my new protag is all about her training and what she can do. Fun to play the other side, isn't it?

  7. Another "Other Side" post I'm bookmarking to come back to. Thanks, Janice.

  8. Great way of looking at things. I have the urge now to run off and just mess with my characters... Not sure what that says about me!

  9. A character that can respond to every situation with the perfect answer or decision just doesn't work for readers. Where's the humanity in perfection? Where's the flaw? Some missed or not-so-wise decisions really do add conflict, moments of tension and provide something for the character to overcome or be humbled by.

  10. Excellent list! Mine are always over-analyzing... just like their writer, lol! Love all the others, though. New ways for my characters to make bad choices. I'll be referring back to this one. Thanks!

  11. LD, most welcome!

    Raewyn, that you're a writer :) I'm filled with delight every time I think up something horrible to do to mine.

    Angela, absolutely. Well said.

    DB, hehe, they do tend to pick up our habits, don't they?

  12. Excellent stuff! :D
    My protagonist is impulsive and unwillingly inconsiderate, and she thinks she's always right and everyone else is just trying to slow her down. Even after she "wakes to reality" she still believes she must handle it all by herself, until help is forced unto her and she must acknowledge she'd be screwed without others.

  13. Actually, a character who makes those well thought out rational decisions can cause conflict also. Someone who always makes rational, carefully analyzed decisions can conflict with another character. Consider Spock and Capt. Kurk. Spock always makes logical decisions, while Capt. Kurk's decisions were more emotion driven. This type of interplay leads to a fascinating story.

    I like to use a right decision leading to unexpected negative consequences also. Mixing in both types of decisions, right and wrong, keep the tension up as long as the motivations are there.

  14. I know this is an old post, but I can't help jumping in. :) My character is bull-headedly loyal. She ignores things that suggests those close to her are `gasp' in the wrong.

    She's teamed up with someone who is incredibly impulsing. So far he hasn't gotten her killed, but they've had a few near misses.

  15. Veronica, sounds like my kinda of character! All the delightful things you can do to someone like that :)

    Lynn, I agree. The more you mix it up the better the story. I LOVE a right choice leading to trouble. It's usually so unexpected. Thanks!

    Chicory, not too old, I think it was Friday's. Ooo what a great pairing. Two great flaws that work great (for the author) together.

  16. Okay, so it's already been a week since you posted this. But I keep re-reading it and thought I'd finally jump in and tell you I love how you make writing sound so simple. Thanks, Janice! :-)

  17. Aw, thanks Tracy! That means a lot to me :) That's what the whole blog is about, so it's good to hear it's working.

  18. These are excellent suggestions! I probably have too brainy or wise of characters, who usually make the best decisions under any given circumstances. Great reminder that under stress (or not having enough info, etc) that's not necessarily the case!

  19. Carol, people make mistakes, even smart people. Maybe your characters over think things? That could be fun to play with. That old "too smart for your own good" adage.

  20. Your Fiction University applies well to comic book writing too! Thank you for this insightful article. The mistakes that heroes make means they're human, and how they overcome the strife those mistakes cause makes them super.

    1. Good storytelling is good storytelling no matter what the medium. :) And comic books have some of the best, flawed characters out there.