Let the Characters Lead: 15 Minute Writer's Workshop
Updated: Oct 13, 2022
"I know we've only just met," the strange woman said to the traveler. "But I feel as though I need to give you this."
Without knowing why, the traveler held out his hand to accept the strange woman's even stranger offering.
"Thank you," the traveler forced a thankful grin. The woman walked away. The traveler wanted to throw the object she gave him away, but a tiny voice in his head screamed:
Don't do it!
So, against his better judgment, the traveler was thus compelled to slip the strange object into his pocket and continued on his way.
Passages like these are commonly found in fiction, particularly genres (such as fantasy) which rely on "fate," "destiny," or revolve around a "chosen one."
While they are often used to hint at the machinations of destiny and fate, these passages scream "authorial interference" (aka "railroading") and, as a result, end up feeling unnatural and forced because the author's and plot's wills overpower the wills of the characters in order to force a particular outcome.
The first passage explains a side character--often without a name or larger influence on the plot other than to provide assistance to the main character(s)--acting out of character in terms of why they feel a need to give aid. Even the most undeveloped of characters still needs to have a reason to act in one way or another, especially when giving something of potential value, as true altruism doesn't exist either in reality or in fiction. For an example, the first part may be revised like so:
"By the gods—" An old woman gasped as she walked up to a traveler walking toward her on the same road. A tear glittered in the corner of her cloudy left eye as she said, "Forgive me, sir. You see, you look so similar to my departed son, that I thought I'd seen a ghost."
"Is that so," the traveler grumbled. He adjusted his cloak and made to continue on his way, but the woman grabbed the hem of his cloak with her wrinkled fingers and bade him to stop.
"Please, take this," the woman beseeched the traveler in a quivering voice. "I have carried it with me for many a year and is something I always meant to give to my boy when he returned from the war, but I never got the chance."
The woman's gap-toothed smile trembled as she produced a small, strange object and offered it to the traveler.
Any motivation can do, so long as it seems logical and isn't waved off as a "feeling" superimposed by an author in a rush to equip their main character with some object, information, etc. in their single-minded goal to progress the plot. Ensure that every intent--even by the most inconsequential characters--has some form of logic behind it.
The same is especially true of the main characters. When faced with an unusual situation such as this, a character should not be "forced" by an author into reacting in any particular way, or act without knowing why; a character should act in whatever way is natural to them, be it positive or negative. For an example of one kind of response a character may have to such an unsolicited offering:
"Thank you, madam." The traveler's tired expression warmed as he accepted the old crone's heartfelt offering. "Allow me the honor of treasuring it on behalf of the son you lost."
"Bless you," the woman croaked. Her hazy gaze lingered on the traveler for a moment longer before she bowed her head and continued on along the path the traveler had recently trod.
"Thank you, indeed, madam," the traveler snickered as he tossed the small object into the air and caught it in his opposite hand. "Even a trinket such as this will surely afford me a night of food, drink, and entertainment once I arrive at the next town."
By rooting character actions in their actual character as individuals along with their life experiences and desires of what they want to achieve (or want to avoid) it is entirely possible to keep the plot moving while also revealing deeper elements of the story via worldbuilding, setting up hooks, and more.
For this 15 Minute Writer's Workshop exercise challenge, consider the following:
Write a 1-page scene focusing on an interaction between two strangers where one individual has information, advice, or an item which the other character needs in order to advance a larger plot. Ensure that the interaction makes individual motivations clear and are rooted in character desires (such as what a character wants to achieve or wants to avoid) and avoid overly reductive/altruistic goals such as "saving the world." Make motivations personal to each character.
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