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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.

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