Sep 06 2008

Don’t Let Your Characters Walk Away from the Quest

Let’s say you’re writing a book about a candidate trying to join the Navy SEALs.  Unless there’s something holding him there, he can always walk away if it gets too hard.  That’s a lousy plot.  There’s no consequence for failure!  If failure is an acceptable option, we probably won’t care whether the character succeeds.  You can make this story more dramatic by adding personal urgency.  For example, perhaps the SEAL candidate had a brother or father that died as a SEAL and he sees it as his life’s mission to finish the job.

Here are some other suggestions to keep your characters in the story.

  1. There is nothing to return to. The Empire killed Luke’s family.  (Careful, this is a bit cliche).
  2. Too much is at stake to walk away. In The Day After Tomorrow, the protagonist doesn’t have to trek from Philadelphia to Manhattan, but it’s the only way to save his son.  Alternately, the characters in LOTR have no choice but to fight their genocidal enemies.
  3. The character physically cannot walk away. If your character is in prison, he can’t avoid the local thugs.  His only choices are submission and resistance.  Alternately, she may be trapped on a spaceship with a killer alien.

5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Don’t Let Your Characters Walk Away from the Quest”

  1. Tyon 10 Sep 2008 at 3:58 pm

    I love this site and find it so amazingly useful, but I gotta disagree with this post. I never like to limit myself as a writer, you should always do what seems best. I mean you got to think about it don’t just write everything at once. But I think if your hero fails, it’s not neccessarily a terrible plot line, as long as it’s not the end of your story.

    For your Navy Seal example. Say the guy tries, but he is not good enough, he is the worst cadet in his class, he gets up and walks out one day. I think that’s good, as long as you continue the story.
    He doesn’t just get up and walk away and end scene, roll the credits. He gets up, walks out, goes to a bar, gets drunk, goes home feels ashamed that he let his family down. He will never be a ‘real man’ like his Navy hero of a Father, he will never come out from under his Father’s shadow. Maybe this is where the hero begins to question his life, he stops being the hero and he becomes a villain. Or maybe more of an anti-hero.
    A good hero is an awesome plot device, but he has to fail at some point, if he always succeeds then the readers will always expect him to, there is no suspense no thrill, no moment of ‘is he going to survive this?’

    Another example I thought of was Superman and the Flash (I don’t know much outside the tv series)
    But Let’s pretend that Superman and Flash have a foot race, My money would be on the Flash (Superman flies, he never runs except Smallville) If Superman wins and Flash (the hero in this example) loses. Flash feels defeated, terrible, ashamed and all that. But then he turns around and trains harder and becomes better. Or he goes into depression, retires, there’s alot more there if he fails.

  2. B. Macon 11 Sep 2008 at 1:28 am

    That’s a good point about continuing the plot. If the story keeps going even though the character has dropped out of the Seals, you’ve probably added some element of personal urgency to the story.

    Heroes can fail, that’s fine. However, I think there absolutely needs to be some in-story consequence for failure. Otherwise why did the story matter? I don’t like speaking in absolutes, but creating consequences for failure is almost up there with “be interesting” and “keep graphic sex to a minimum in children’s books” in terms of time-tested writing principles.

    I also like your idea about using failure as a vehicle for introspection.

  3. Jess Son 07 Dec 2016 at 10:23 am

    I’m still planning my story and haven’t even gotten to proper plot outlining yet, but would it be a good idea to have a story that only takes place in a few days? For example, say a hurricane is barreling toward MC’s city and so she has to do whatever she needs to do quickly- her family is planning to evacuate and there’s no guarantee that what she wants will remain there.

    My question is, would this kill the story with how limited it is? From around ~when the storm predictions are accurate enough for panic to evacuation, the story would have only 2-3 days, maybe barely a little more, for the plot to finish.

  4. B. McKenzieon 07 Dec 2016 at 8:19 pm

    “My question is, would this kill the story with how limited it is? From around ~when the storm predictions are accurate enough for panic to evacuation, the story would have only 2-3 days, maybe barely a little more, for the plot to finish.” I don’t know what the plot entails, but there have been some highly successful works that take place over a single day (e.g. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep/Bladerunner, Hogfather, and After Dark). Also, in more literary fiction, there’s Ulysses and the aptly named One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Finding someone in 2-3 days before everybody flees the hurricane sounds very workable.

    Does the main character know how much time she has before the target evacuates? (Also, is there anything keeping the target in town as late as humanly possible before the hurricane hits? Maybe a shady business deal or maybe he has some quest of his own that (mirroring the protagonist) he has a limited window to achieve before everybody leaves for the hurricane).

  5. Hrideyon 08 Dec 2016 at 5:41 am

    My main character’s sis dies in a superhero battle . He sets off to destroy all if them and to take over the world.
    Is the goal alright??

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