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What Drives Your Characters? Part 2

Which works better, the carrot or the stick? Most writers understand using objectives to encourage characters. However, you can also use tactics to discourage your characters.

Children learn early that behaviors have consequences. Too much reward and too little punishment creates a spoiled brat. Too much punishment and not enough reward and they end up with poor boundaries and a tolerance for abuse or they become rigid and a bully. The people surrounding the antagonist are usually one or the other. This can be a mild factor in a family dynamic or the dynamic between a mob boss and his cronies.

Dick may ask for a cookie. If mom says no, he might cry. This ploy might work or it might result in having to sit time out for five minutes. A child learns to read the people around him and use the methods that work to get what he wants. Characters in your story are the same. People generally do things only if they work. If something stops working for them, they change tactics. Your protagonist will use a variety of methods to gain what he needs. When his tactics don’t work, he is forced to change them until he finds the one that does.

If Jane asks Dick to do something and it is within the realm of what he is willing or able to do, or if it will give him a payoff of some kind (the pleasure of Jane’s company, the pleasure of an activity they both enjoy), Dick will agree immediately. They will continue to talk about it, plan for it, or commit to a date. Dick may have a busy schedule and have to check his calendar or see how much his budget will tolerate. However, his immediate response will be positive: “I’d love to. Let me check my calendar and we’ll go from there.” And he does check and gets back to Jane within a day or so.

When Dick consciously, or subconsciously, does not want to do something, he will make outlandish excuses and the justifications fly. Dick will squirm and hedge. He will say things like “Can’t afford it” or “Don’t have time right now.” However, Dick’s excuse is patently false. He really does not want to fulfill the request. He is hesitant to come right out and say so for fear of hurting Jane’s feelings, inconveniencing her, or making himself look or feel bad. The list of justifications will expand and mutate as Jane points out flaws in his logic by saying things like, “but we can afford it” or “I’ll pay for it.” Dick will be driven to even more flights of fancy to excuse his reluctance. These conversations rarely end well.

When Jane asks Dick to do something he does not want to do, his body stiffens. His thoughts skid. It takes a few seconds to come up with a justification. If Dick is an introvert, he might do this if you ask him to speak in public. If he is an extrovert, he might do this if it sounds confining, restrictive, or boring.

Dick will do this whenever he does not want to go somewhere, meet someone, engage in an unpleasant activity, or spend time with a person he dislikes. It isn’t politically correct to say, “I don’t want to go because I loathe your brother.” He may be completely unaware that his internal resistance is because he hates Jane’s brother. Instead of analyzing his reaction, Dick will simply reach for excuses such as work, conflicting plans, or the last ditch cure-all, “I don’t feel well,” to avoid the event or avoid fulfilling Jane’s request.

A people-pleasing Jane will immediately respond “yes” to every request Dick makes then have to wriggle and squiggle her way out of it. It can be entertaining to watch. She says, “Yes.” Her mind registers the negative aspects. Her body clenches as thoughts swirl while she figures a way out of it: “Well, what I mean is,” or “I’ll have to check,” or “I’ll have to look at my schedule and let you know.” It is guaranteed Jane will find a conflicting engagement or other rationale to escape the obligation. If Dick persists, Jane will likely toss out the “I don’t feel well” card. Who can argue with the flu and a temperature of 105?

A rigid Sally will automatically answer “no.” She may create problems for herself by saying “no.” She may come back and try to accommodate the request, but that is rare. Rigid characters rarely reconsider anything.

A middle of the road Sally who initially says “no” may go home and feel guilty. She may worry that she’ll look bad if she doesn’t fulfill the request. She may worry about hurting Jane’s feelings. Sally will find a sudden opening in her schedule or a miracle cure for the flu that permits her to do it.

Pit a character that needs something against a character with any of these responses and you have subtle conflict at scene level. They make uneasy allies. They make complicated lovers. They make irritating family members and coworkers.

You can use the conflict of repulsion in many ways at any story level in any genre. 

For more information on using obstacles to create tension in your fiction, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in paperback or E-book.

What drives your characters? Part 1

Most stories hinge on the question of attraction versus repulsion. A protagonist is either kept from achieving something he really wants to achieve or works to prevent something he can’t allow.

There are many motivators both tangible and intangible. They can be a desired object, a position, a return favor, praise, time spent together, a puppy, or promise of a leisure activity. 

The reward can be immediate or in the future. Too far in the future and both reward and punishment lose their impact. That is why the story and scene stakes should be more immediate.

The reward must also be meaningful to a character. We are all motivated by different things. We all like and need different things.

If you promise an introvert a party or a starring role in a play, she will most likely walk away.

If you promise an extrovert a week alone on a tropical island, he will likely decline unless the island has buried treasure.

Most of your characters, at some point, will do something either out of hope of reward or fear of punishment.

Dick might work toward solving the story problem out of hope of reward. He will gain something he very much wants: the girl, the job, the presidency or world peace.

Sally might work toward the story or scene goal out of fear of punishment or retaliation by an angry parent, aliens or an evil mob boss.

There are many types of rewards: self esteem, the esteem of others, connection, friendship, money, position, power, fame, or an adrenaline rush.

The most powerful is financial gain. Characters are willing to dress up in costumes and act silly to gain money. They are willing to stand out in the rain with a sign and beg for it.

If Dick is in debt, he may be willing to lie, cheat, steal and kill to get money. Money encourages characters to gamble, to invest in risky stocks, to commit murder in a Mystery. It can also motivate a child to do his chores or a worker to try harder to get a raise.

If Dick values esteem over money and offering to pay him doesn’t work, offering to publically praise him will.

Jane may resist the goal because she does not want the reward, strange as that may sound. Offer Jane the carrot of something she does not want, and you have the opposite effect than the one you desired. Offer Jane a punishment she’d enjoy and you’ve failed again.

If Jane hates being the center of attention, offering her the spotlight will send her running in the opposite direction.

If Sally prefers vanilla over chocolate, Dick giving her a Whitman’s Sampler for Valentine’s Day won’t earn him brownie points. Baking her chocolate chip cookies instead of sugar cookies won't convince her to do her homework.

Telling Dick he’ll have to stay home with Grandma while his parents go on vacation to Amish Country to shop for antiques won’t exactly break his heart, especially if Grandma is the cookie baking, curfew-ignoring type.

If Dick offers Jane a reward that she considers a punishment, they have conflict. Lets say, Dick suggests they go a Bed & Breakfast for the weekend. Jane might say yes or she might say no. Jane may love B&Bs, but she isn’t feeling particularly fond of Dick at the moment, so she refuses. Going might heal their relationship, but Jane meets internal resistance at the idea of being alone with Dick, so she declines the offer. She will come up with justifications as to why: too much work, conflicting meeting, too exhausted and wants to stay home in her jammies. Jane might agree to go but the confinement of the B&B causes them to fight rather than make up and Dick gets the opposite of what he hoped for. Jane can give in and go and end up having a good time, thus getting the result Dick hoped for but Jane didn't think possible.

If Dick and Jane are forced to work together to solve a mystery, Dick might agree because he loves a good puzzle. Jane might hate puzzle solving but agree because Dick appeals to her sense of justice or fair play. She might be secretly in love with Dick and covet time with him.

If Sally is secretly hoping for an engagement ring for Christmas and Dick buys her a diamond watch, she still received diamonds, just not the diamonds she was hoping for. Dick's next request will most likely be met with resistance if not refusal.

This type of conflict can play out among any set of characters be they friends, relatives, lovers, coworkers, etc. Characters tend to buy gifts, plan vacations, throw parties, arrange date activities and select movies for the weekend based on their wants, needs and personal preferences. This almost always causes conflict unless the two people are entirely in sync with each other in that regard.

Dick may plan a day at the football game, while Sally would rather stay home and watch a Jane Austen marathon. Okay, maybe that's just me, but the point is made.

Jane may plan a surprise party for Dick at work. If Dick hates being the center of attention or if he is trying to pull off a covert action, he will not be happily surprised by the party. It may make his scene goal much harder than he ever thought possible.

If a group of friends decides to go scuba diving in the Florida Keys for the weekend and Jane is either afraid of water or afraid of sharks, she'll refuse to go. No matter how many rewards Sally offers her (free margaritas all weekend, Jimmy Buffett playing at a local bar, lots of hot guys in skimpy bathing suits), none of that will matter to Jane. She could agree to go to the Keys but not scuba dive. The rest of the pack will consider her a wet blanket and refuse to pay for the drinks or refuse to go to the Buffett Concert in retaliation. Or they could enjoy her company so much that they don't care if she joins them in the ocean, as long as she goes along for the trip. If the reward of her company is alluring enough, they might offer to pay for the trip if Jane can't afford it.

Place characters with opposing ideas of reward in a relationship or in a scene and you have conflict.

Next week, we will explore the conflict of repulsion.

For more on using obstacles to create tension in your fiction, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in paperback or E-book.

Avoid The Reaction Plot Hole

If a bomb goes off in your plot and no one reacts, what's the point?

A friend of mine uses the term “push back," in her critiques. What it means is something of merit happens or is said and none of the characters respond. The action or dialogue goes unchallenged and the scene contains no conflict: huge plot hole.

During a recent encounter with a stubborn two-year-old, I knew exactly what she meant. The conversation went something like this:

“Ava, Granny has to go into her room for a minute.”


“Yes, I do. You can hold my hand or I can pick you up, which would you prefer?” (I like to give toddlers options. It makes them feel like they have a modicum of control.)


“Take my hand.”


“Okay, the hard way.” I picked her up. She pushed back by whining the entire time we were in the room. Little Ava didn’t get her way and she was not happy about it. She let me know it, for five minutes straight, while banging her Barbie doll’s head on everything she came in contact with.

Don’t make things too easy for Sally, Dick, and Jane. Make sure other characters balk, impede, cop an attitude, and show their displeasure. Make them react. Get inside each character's head. What are they thinking and feeling in the scene? 

Too often secondary characters' motivations are lost when writing from one character's POV. Just because they aren't the focus, doesn't mean they don't have thoughts, feelings, wants, needs, schedules, and goals of their own.

If Dick forces Jane to go somewhere she doesn’t want to go, talk to someone she does not want to talk to, or perform an act she’d rather not, have her refuse or retaliate.

What will Jane do to make him regret forcing her hand? It may not happen right away. Dick might not feel the push for an hour, a day, or a week. Dick makes Jane do something. She forces him to pay for it later by making him do or say something or go somewhere he doesn’t want to. If Jane complies and fulfills Dick’s request, she might push back right away then emphasize her point again later.

They start off having the above sort of conversation:

“Jane, we’ve been invited to Sally and Ted’s for a party.”

“No freaking way.”

"Ted is my boss.”

“I’d rather crawl in a sewer and collect Bubonic-plagued rats.”

“Attendance isn't optional.”

“Your problem, not mine.”

"He expects you to come with me.”

“Fine, I’ll go, but I’ll need a new Coach purse and new heels and a new dress.”

This is the immediate push back. Jane hits Dick in his credit card.

The night arrives, dinner ensues, and Jane ruins the evening by discussing Bubonic-plagued rat hairs found in a caterer’s food at a previous party. That is push back. She might give Dick a break and tell the hideous hostess that it wasn’t her caterer – of course 
 but one can never be too careful.

Dick forces her to leave the party early, which makes Jane very happy. In retribution, he will offer a little push back of his own. When Jane asks him to go to her mother’s house for dinner, he can reply, “I’d rather crawl in a sewer and eat Bubonic-plagued rats.”

The game is on.

To learn more about using obstacles to create conflict in your fiction, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, available in paperback and E-book.

Abandonment as Conflict

When someone we care about goes missing, there is conflict. It could be a mysterious disappearance, a runaway, a kidnapping, or a death.

A parent that abandons a child, or dies, leaves a psychological wound that influences the child’s entire life. A parent who simply disappears creates an anxiety-riddled need to understand why and how. The child often blames himself. Send a character on a journey to find out why and you have a story problem.

Abandonment wounds can lower Jane's self-esteem. It can color how she interacts with the world. It can make her more sensitive to someone’s absence. A child whose parent is absent or abandons them can become clingy. It can make Jane a suffocating friend or lover. It can make Sally an overprotective parent. It could make Dick assume that everyone leaves so why try to connect? On the flip side, it can inspire Jane to be a better parent, friend, or lover to compensate for what she didn't have.

Abandonment strikes a person all the way to the core. It is a trigger that, even if dealt with, remains. It doesn't take much to set it off. If Jane's father abandoned her, she won't be able to view fathers and daughters on television or out in the park without feeling a twinge of loss. Jane might be jealous of a step-sibling who has a father but doesn't appreciate it. She might be jealous of a friend's relationship with their father. In a thriller or paranormal tale, it can inspire Jane to usurp the friend's place. Jane may avoid relationships because she can't handle the possibility of being left again. She may avoid having children. Her husband or boyfriend might not understand. Mother hunger works the same way.

What if Jane found the parent that gave her away only to learn the parent was a serial killer? It would make a terrific suspense thriller. Jane could find out that the parent was simply an ordinary broken person who lacked the ability to love another in a healthy way and she was better off without the parent. This would make a touching literary tale with a down ending.

If Jane disappears, Dick will take steps to find her and won’t keep hoping or trying until he is successful. Dick will go to any lengths to regain someone he has lost. It can be a friend, lover, child or parent. The more personal the connection, the higher the stakes become. Each layer of separation from the protagonist and the stakes become diluted, unless the person they have to find can save the world. Add a ticking clock and you are at thriller level. The obstacles are in trying to get them back.

Getting them back can create new conflicts. Dick can get Jane back and it all ends happily. He can get Jane back and find she has changed. Dick can find out Jane didn’t want to be found. You can twist this plot in many ways in every genre.

Attempting to locate someone who has died makes a great overall story problem in a Horror or Paranormal Fantasy novel. It can also be used at scene level. If Jane needs to talk to someone and can’t find them, she will be unable to achieve her scene goal. If someone disappears in the middle of a scene, she has conflict. She is either forced to give up the scene goal to look for them or muddle on without them.

If a Jane takes her child into a store and the child decides to play hide and seek, Jane has conflict. If she is trying to overcome a scene obstacle, little Sally's stunt will make Jane's goal that much harder to overcome. If little Sally has been snatched by kidnappers, Jane has an overall story problem.

You could argue the thematic statement that absence makes the heart grow fonder. The flip side is to argue that it doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes you realize you don’t really need or want the person after all.

What if Dick chased the one that got away only to find out he didn't like them? That would make a fun romantic plot, providing the right girl was there all along. Dick could pine for an old girlfriend, see her in passing and realize she isn’t as attractive as he remembered, or that she is now a centerfold model. This could be used in a literary tale about a marriage gone stale.

At scene level, an inspector can locate a suspect and realize the suspect is innocent. He must abandon theory one and investigate theory two. The inspector can be haunted by a partner that left without explanation. He can be haunted by a missing person case he did not solve.

In any genre, Dick can be abandoned by someone in a crowded park or building or left on planet Zircon to solve the situation by himself. It will frustrate, if not panic, him.

You can play abandonment in a different way. If extroverted Dick takes introverted Jane to a party and goes off to talk to other people all night, Jane will feel abandoned. She might get mad. She might leave. She might hold it against him for a really long time. The next time he asks her for something, she will refuse. She might deliver verbal zingers until he finally asks why she is being so mean.

If Dick and Jane fly to Africa for a safari and Dick disappears, Jane has a massive problem. She has to find Dick or face the possibility of returning to America without him. Finding someone in a foreign country is a difficult thing to do, particularly when their laws, society, and language are foreign to you.

Abandonment is a terrific theme and overall story problem. It adds poignancy to a love story or motivates a character at scene level. Being alone, even in a crowd, is a universal fear that everyone can tap into.

For more about using obstacles to create tension in your fiction, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict in print or E-book.