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Writing Excuses 8.30: Writing Reluctant Characters

Writing Excuses 8.30: Writing Reluctant Characters


 Key Points: Not everybody is a go-getter! What about characters who are not self-motivated, or characters going through rough emotional times? How can you write about these weak and reluctant characters and still be interesting? Give them a goal, but not one related to the problem they are facing. Use the character arc, with change in the character from reluctant and repeatedly failing as they face the situation until they must change and become proactive. Think about why they are reluctant. Reluctant or weak character is satisfied with their role, but events force them out of their comfort zone. Focus on what makes it comfortable, and what they fear will happen. Sometimes the peaceful life is the carrot, that they want to get back to. Avoid whining! Give the weak character a sufficient and compelling reason to break out of their comfort zone. Put someone they love in danger. Also, have the weak character use the tools they have intelligently. Another point -- give your character a good reason to be reluctant.

[Mary] Season eight, episode 30.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, how to write reluctant characters.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm reluctant.
[Brandon] Oh, Howard. We'll help you along.
[Howard] Thank you.

[Brandon] We'll tell you how you can stop being so reluctant. Actually, what's going on with this podcast is this is a question we had through our website, but it's something that struck a chord in me. Because I have tried to write these reluctant characters and I've had various levels of success. It is hard to make your stories in such a way that they both feel realistic and are always populated with go-getters. Not everybody's a go-getter. We like to have a large slice of life in our fiction. Sometimes we want to write about a character who's not self-motivated, or we want to write about a character who's going through a very hard emotional part of their life, and if you go through something like that, you get very reluctant, to the point that you may just not do anything. We want to talk about in the podcast how to write these characters so that they're interesting.
[Brandon] Wow. Silence. My goodness. They're all staring at me.
[Mary] Yes.
[Dan] We do want to talk about that. This is something that I have done in my manuscript, that I am still revising and haven't sold. The cloning book that I talk about all the time. The main character of that one is very weak and reluctant. In the early draft that Brandon read, he was all over the place. He was a mess of a character. What helped me make him work was to give him a better goal. I didn't really give him any goal, there wasn't anything he wanted out of life. He has a goal now, it's just not a goal that relates in any way to the problem he's involved with. So it gives him more focus. He's still weak when it comes to the story and the obstacles he's supposed to be overcoming, but as a character, he feels more fully formed.

[Brandon] Now these sorts of things that we're doing, this is going against the rule of thumb. The rule of thumb is make a character who is proactive and who is passionate about things and who is intersecting the plot in an interesting way that they can be involved in. But once again, we don't always want to write the exact same story. You can write very interesting stories about people who are not interested in... Self-motivated. I ran into this in one of my novels. I was writing a character who sank into a deep depression. Someone very important to him... He'd lost someone very important to him, it was... I wanted to try and approach actual depression. I've known people with depression. I'm like, "Can I capture this?" I wrote the first draft of the book and I felt like I really captured it. It was horrid to read. It was just a miserable experience, because you go to these chapters and it just completely stopped the momentum of the book. For me, the same fix was what Dan suggested here. Well, maybe it's a little bit different. I've talked about this on the podcast before. I gave this character a sort of a checklist of things that he was doing. That each one he checked off the list was actually sending him deeper into depression. So it was getting worse and worse. The progression made the chapters very engaging, even if the progression was I'm getting more and more depressed because I'm searching for something and I'm checking things off the list that could save me from this, that could bring me life and hope, but I'm not finding anything in each of these things that I'm doing. But there was motion, there was something the character was doing. So an activity for the character, even though...

[Howard] At risk of stating the obvious, it feels to me like the formula for this is to take your reluctant character and put them in a situation where if they don't react, if they don't take some sort of action, the unconscionable happens. So they take action, that yes, probably makes things worse, because they are reacting. They continue to react, hopefully in interesting ways, demonstrating their reluctance, demonstrating their ability to follow the path of least resistance while still staying alive until we reach a point in the book where they have to become proactive. That's a change in the character. That's the character arc.

[Mary] Well, I think there's actually a step before that, which is to figure out why they are reluctant. That's a really important thing. If we think about the old MICE quotient idea again, then in a classic character story, you have a character who is dissatisfied with their role in life and wants to work to change it. With a reluctant or weak character, you often have a character who is in fact satisfied with their role in life. They don't have any problems with it. They don't want to go out and save the world. But then an event happens which causes them... Which forces them outside of their comfort zone. I think that these can be some of the most interesting stories when you watch someone who's having to step outside of their comfort zone really doesn't want to, and having to step up to the bar. But I think part of what you have to look at is why they want to stay, what is comfortable for them, and what is it that they fear is going to happen when they step out.

[Brandon] Now, you could go to the Hobbit itself as an example of this, of the reluctant character who is reluctant in that their life is good. They don't want to have to do anything. But this is kind of the classic archetype of this type of story. I've talked about before... I talked about it with the students here at the Writing Excuses retreat, the idea of the villain problem, that the villain causing the hero to have to react, sometimes strengthens the villain and weakens the hero. This is an issue you need to be aware of, particularly with the reluctant character. With a character who doesn't want to go save the world. Making sure that they're still interesting and that we want to read about them, as opposed to read about the person who is causing this person to react because that's the proactive person.
[Mary] I think one of the people who actually does this, and I keep bringing up this book, is Jane Austen's Persuasion. Anne Elliot is commonly seen as a weak and reluctant character, because, again, she has a life that while it is not perfect, is completely... It is a totally functional life for her. One of the things that Austen does is that she has Anne reacting within ways that fit her comfort zone, but using those things as weapons. She likes propriety, so she uses propriety as a weapon against the other people in the novel. I think that's something that you can do, is find not just what makes the character reluctant, but what it is that they like and use that as their tool for making things happen.
[Brandon] Right. Another tool I have seen her that tends to work pretty well is the show us why their perfect life is actually not perfect. Meaning they have a life that they're comfortable with, that they think is perfect, but the course of the novel is going to show them that if they would have gone out and done this other thing, which they were forced to do, they truly find who they are and never want to have to go back.
[Howard] In my limited exposure to literary fiction, the dysfunctional family... Member of a dysfunctional family who is reluctant to take action because everything is kind of okay, and then they begin reacting and step out and realize, "Oh, wow, we really do have problems, don't we?" I mean, that's... It's not a genre book, but it's a very powerful book, because a lot of us are actually in that position.
[Brandon] You know the converse of this, however, is... I have read books that have done very well with the peaceful life that the person knew as a carrot. Meaning what the person wants, and they make a passion of the I want to get back to the life I had before. The trick with this one is don't make them whiny about it. Because whininess is going to be your biggest enemy in this. But to make them... You know that's what they strive for, that's what they want to recover, that's what they... They're reluctant and yet they're passionate about going back to what they were before. You can use that as the reward at the end. The character has now achieved back to the thing that they thought that they always loved, that they wanted again, and they have now found it.

[Brandon] Let's stop for our book of the week.
[Mary] This week is Celebromancy by Michael Underwood. I have to say that I was the audiobook narrator for this. But I had so much fun with the book that I think you all would love it. It's the second book in the series, but I think you can step in there. Basically, the idea is that geekomancy and celebromancy are power forms that are fan run. Geekomancy is run by the power of fandom, and their love for objects, like light sabers and things like that. So the main character is a geekomancer and she needs a celebromancer. Celebromancers take their power from having fans. So she's a movie star. There's like demons and dragons and it's all set in a fictional town in Oregon, and it's so much fun. I got to make a light saber noise, too.
[Brandon] Sweet.
[Howard] That is awesome. Head out to You can start a 30 day free trial membership, download yourself a copy of Celebromancy by Michael Underwood and listen to Mary make a light saber noise. Which she's not going to spoil for us here.
[Brandon] That's right.
[Howard] You have to go get the book.

[Brandon] Dan!
[Dan] Yes. I think that we ought to talk about, at least briefly, having a character who is weak but not reluctant, or reluctant but not weak. A great example of reluctant but not weak is, I think, Sam Gamgee from Lord of the Rings. He does not want to be there, he hates everything about it, but he's incredibly capable the entire time.
[Brandon] Right. But he is also kind of weak in some ways.
[Dan] He's weak, he's not a fighter and so on, but...
[Brandon] But he is a strong character.
[Dan] He is a strong character. The obstacles he needs to overcome, he does a good job with.
[Brandon] Okay. So what makes Sam work?
[Dan] What makes Sam work? I think it's because he still has that reluctance to him. So it feels like a flaw that he's going to overcome. Plus, like we said right before the book of the week, he has that idyllic life that he's always leading back to. He's not ever whining about it. But he's always remembering Rosie Cotton and he's remembering the good old coneys or the taters or whatever that he wants to get back to, his simple life. That's all he really wants. So we kind of like him because of how simple he is.
[Howard] A lesser-known example of the reluctant but definitely not weak is Superman in the Kingdom Come novel, Kingdom Come graphic novel. Superman has retired and is farming and is not doing superhero stuff anymore. When the apocalypse arrives, he doesn't want to get involved because he recognizes that he's a god. He's worshiped and he doesn't want to be. Humans have to solve this for themselves. But if he doesn't step in, there might not be anything left. I love the way the other characters drew him into the apocalypse.

[Brandon] Now, I want to say here, though, I want to steer the podcast away from just examples. I want to say, "How are we doing this? How are we actively writing characters who are reluctant or weak, and still make them interesting?"
[Dan] Well, here, let me give you a good example of someone who is weak but not reluctant. I'm using my own book, The Hollow City. The main character has schizophrenia, spends most of the book in a mental institution. That gives him great weakness. He is not reluctant, because he is constantly trying to do things. He is trying to cure himself, he is trying to fight back against the monsters...
[Brandon] And he's doing a pretty poor job of both.
[Dan] He's doing a terrible job because he doesn't have... He doesn't even understand what's really going on. The technique that I used to do that was (A) he kind of sees himself in parts of the book as a secret agent or as a superhero, because he's fighting monsters all the time. So that gives him a great... Because he's not reluctant, that gives him a great kind of through line that is pulling. There's always motion. He always has a new plan. So the book has that energy, even though the plans are constantly failing. The reason that that works is because really the whole plot, the whole theme of the book, revolves around his continued failure. So bringing that out as a key to the book rather than just an aspect of the character is what made it work.

[Brandon] Mary.
[Mary] So I also have... My main character is also weak, just because she is a woman and it's 1816. I have someone who is actually fairly content with the whole idea of you get married, you have children. She breaks a little bit from cultural norms, but not very far. So what I had to do with her was to give her sufficient and compelling reason to break out of her comfort zone. I had to make... Basically, I had to put someone that she cared about very much in danger. Which is your classic thing in most... That's why you put the baby in danger. Although that's not particularly what happens in this case. But you put something at stake that the character cares about enough to want to... Or to be willing to step out of that comfort zone. It's also something that when you have the reluctant character... Sorry, I was going to talk about the weak character, but the... So with the weak character, what she does is... I look at the tools that she would have at her disposal, and I just try to have her make the most intelligent decisions she can possibly make. Rather than trying to give her tools that she would not have...
[Brandon] Right. I think that's actually a good point. Because once you give someone tools they don't have or they shouldn't have...
[Howard] It breaks us out of the story.
[Brandon] Well, no, you can write that story, but it becomes a very different story. That's no longer about a weak character. It becomes a very different style of story. There's an interesting story to be told for someone who is not fighting for more rights, who is... You know what I'm saying? Like, not every story has to be about a revolution of rights from the underclass to the upper-class, even though I like writing those stories.
[Mary] Well, what I did with Glamour in Glass in particular is that... If you haven't read the book, this is a spoiler, but the book's been out for... Yeah. So I take away her ability to do magic. So what I did then was I looked at all of the other skill sets that she would have had as a woman of her times. She knows how to paint, she knows how to sew, she knows how to change her movement to be somewhat more attractive. So she alters her appearance through sewing, through painting, and uses the skill set that she has, and goes that way rather than trying to do something else.
[Dan] Another great thing that I think you do in Glamour in Glass is... You talked about how you put someone she loves in danger, her husband is captured. But the reason she's reluctant, the reason she loses her magic is because you've also endangered her unborn child. So what you give her is a really, really good reason to be reluctant. What that turns it into is an... Like an impossible moral choice. Do I save my husband or do I save my baby? That is what made that book work for me really well.

[Brandon] We are completely out of time on this podcast. But, Mary, I believe, has a writing prompt for us.
[Mary] Yeah. So what... One of the things that we've been talking about in this is that the... Your character is going to have a point where they have to decide to step up to the plate. So figure out... What I want you to do is create a character who is either weak or reluctant, figure out why they are weak or reluctant, and then write the decision point that they have to make. Do that using the tools that we've talked about. If they're a weak character, figure out what skill sets they have and how they can bring them to bear on the decision point. If they're a reluctant character, figure out why they're reluctant and what is that triggers that. Write that so that we can see that moment.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.

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