If you’d like to see spring in all its glory at our house, just click on my husband’s website on the right. And scroll down to see the latest (two) photos of Reggie. The second one shows his maniacal glee in a play fight with his BFF Demi.
On to the post. On February 11, 2013, Kenzi Anne wrote, I have trouble finishing stories because I get my characters into pickles and I'll think "wow! this is great!...snap, now how do they get out of it?" In other words...I'm not clever enough to get my characters out of their pit. If I'd been in most of my characters' situations, I wouldn't have a clue what to do, and probably would have just thrown up the white flag--not a very interesting story! So I guess my question is, how do I write a character that's cleverer than I am?
And writeforfun replied, I tend to have that problem, too! My current story is a spy novel, so I have to get my characters in and out of pickles all the time, and it gets tricky! Lucky for me, I have a genius brother who can usually think of a way out when I can't. So, although this may not be an option for you, my first piece of advice would be to find someone you can trust (that won't tell you "forget it - this is terrible!") who could help you brainstorm a way out. Another method I've found is to give the characters objects in advance that will help them out of the tricky situation. I have one character who always carries a file with him (long story), and when he was put into an old jail, he used the file to break out. It would have been weird if he had been in the jail and said, "Oh, well would you look at that? I have a file in my pocket!" but he's been carrying around a file since he first showed up in my last book. Since it was already there, it doesn’t make you think, "Seriously? A file?" but rather something like, "Wow, who would have thought that would actually come in handy?" It seems that if you mention the thing (or person, or animal, or whatever) that will help them out BEFORE they actually need it, it seems clever instead of cheesy. And, if all else fails, I usually alter the situation a tad so that my impossible situation has one little escape hole in it to work with. I know, all of these suggestions might not necessarily help – maybe even none of them will – but I hope this gives you some ideas. Good luck!
I’m entirely with writeforfun. I don’t have a brother, genius or otherwise, but I do use her other two ideas: arm my MC in advance with something that will get her out of trouble, and build an escape hatch into any pickle I put her in.
You don’t have to see ahead to do either one. If she doesn’t already have a file in her pocket, you can go back fifty pages and give her one. The file in writeforfun’s example works especially well because it was planted in an earlier book, so it’s really well established.
It’s particularly nice if the instrument comes as a surprise, if it’s not obviously a weapon or a means of escape. For example, suppose our MC, Rona, is wearing a ceremonial sash that has to be tied in a particular way, and it’s very long because it has to go over her shoulder, around her waist three times, and over the other shoulder and then hang behind her almost to the ground. The reader has seen the tying-of-the-sash ceremony and worried with Rona that it will slip off her shoulder and trail through something disgusting. There may even be taboos about this. In the next chapter, she’s imprisoned. Despondent, she thinks of hanging herself with the scarf until her own thoughts frighten her, and it occurs to her to use the sash as the means of her escape. There’s a grate overhead and one in the floor, and the window is barred. Plus, the guard comes in once a day to bring her bread and water and remove the chamberpot, and he has a neck the scarf could wind around and - mnah hah hah - tighten.
This scarf has more charming possibilities. Suppose Rona, in preparation for her ceremony, whatever it is, has learned The Dance of the Sash, which involves snapping it, making it ripple in the air. She could even have mastered tricks that cause the sash to tie itself into knots in the air, potentially weaponizing it.
Or maybe she’s even been taught how to turn it into a python!
But we don’t want to make things too easy for her, either. The snake may do that, unless the reader knows that it’s just at likely to strike Rona as her enemies.
Or the escape hatch. Rona is imprisoned in a cell with a tin roof, solid wooden door, solid plaster walls, and windows too high to reach. No scarf. Nothing that could be a weapon, not even a spoon. Through the high-up windows, she sees the sky darken. Rain starts, and the cell ceiling leaks a lot. She realizes this has happened many times before, and it occurs to her that the floorboards may be rotten. She takes it from there.
We writers have one advantage that enables us to write characters who are cleverer than we are. It’s time. Our characters can snap out sharp comebacks in an instant - because we’ve taken hours to think them up. They’re definitely smarter. In real life we could never answer so fast.
I bump into this constantly with my dragon detective, Masteress Meenore, who is totally brilliant, which makes IT great fun to write. I’m always figuring out ways to make IT shine. IT’s teaching my MC Elodie to deduce and induce and use her common sense, and when IT questions her, she often gets a headache.
Here’s an example from Stolen Magic. The background is that this item, the Replica, has been stolen from within the Oase, which is like a museum, with many rooms of shelves and cupboards. If the Replica isn’t found the consequences will be terrible. I won’t say what they are. This little bit includes Masteress Meenore, Elodie, and another character her age (twelve), Master Robbie. The three are in a stable outside the Oase. Masteress Meenore is the first speaker:
“When you return, do not waste your energy searching shelves, although there are many and a month could be spent combing them. Let others do it, because it must be done, but the thief, who is no fool, will not have hidden the Replica there, not even in the most shadowy corner of a cupboard in the most distant chamber. Why is that?”
Can you think of the answer? Close your eyes to think, think, think.
You may have come up with something else, but this is my solution:
The two were silent. Master Robbie’s face wore a strained look, which Elodie recognized.
“Think, Lodie, Master Robbie!”
She wanted to be the one to realize. Think! she thought. Prove I have an original mind!
Ah. “Because, Masteress, the thief couldn’t guess where the searchers would look first. Anyone might stumble on the Replica in an unlikely spot just by luck.”
We’re forever giving our characters powers we don’t have. Ella in Ella Enchanted has an amazing talent for languages. I don’t. Areida in Fairest can throw her voice beyond the ability of any ventriloquist. Why not intelligence?
Here are four prompts:
• You were expecting this. Imprison Rona and get her out using nothing but her sash.
• Try an underwater rescue. Your MC, who doesn’t know how to swim, is tied up in the trunk of a car that goes off a bridge into a river. Write a preceding scene or two to set up what will make her able to survive, the escape hatch or her special ability. Then get her out of there by her own efforts and have her save herself. I mean, she can get an octopus on her side, who can open the trunk and untie the knots, but she has to persuade the octopus.
• This one is sad. Write an argument between two characters, maybe they’re romantically involved, maybe they’re siblings, whatever. One of them feels betrayed; the other feels falsely accused. Make them both brilliant, much smarter than any of us. The fight never gets physical, but have them wound each other emotionally, because neither holds back. Depending on where you want to take it, you can bring them to reconciliation, or they can wind up estranged.
• Too bad Easter is over. This is an armchair Easter egg hunt. You have rivals or two teams of rivals. Twelve eggs have been hidden. The challenge for the contestants is to write down - without going to look - where each egg is hidden. The winner is the one (or the team) who predicts the location of more eggs than the loser. You can make the stakes high even though they're just eggs. A life may hang in the balance. You probably should use a setting you know very well, either a fictional setting you’ve been writing about or a real place. The place will help your characters guess and so will the nature of whoever is doing the hiding, but the contestants will have to be very clever.
Have fun, and save what you write!