By Danielle Ackley-McPhail
For good or ill, everyone needs rules…if nothing else so they have something to break.
But seriously now, we really do need them. That goes for your characters just as much as it goes for you and I. (I can hear the whine right now: but Whhhyyy?)
Good fiction is propelled by two things: Goals and Conflict. Both basically boil down to “something the main character needs to achieve or overcome.” For your character’s journey to be interesting they need barriers to pit themselves against, proving their skill and worth, as it were.
Let’s face it, if it’s too easy, it’s almost always dissatisfying.
Now, since this article is all about the rules, let’s take a look at the various kinds you can throw at your hero to plop him in the middle of interesting times.
The Rules of Nature
In many instances most of us choose to fall back on what we know: birds fly, things fall down, etc. Nice, simple, familiar to both the author and the reader. No one has to think much about it. But if you are writing genre fiction you get to change the rules by putting your characters in settings that would never occur on our quaint little mudball. When that happens, you have to consider what makes there different from here and what impact that will have on your characters.
Predators. Let’s face it, if you have invented a predator it is for two reasons: 1) your character is going to encounter it, or 2) your character has to avoid it. Predators can take the form of animals or sentient beings—I know…state the obvious, why don’t I—as well as mundane or supernatural.
Things to consider when creating predators:
- What threat do they pose?
- What are their habits?
- What is their territory/natural environment?
- How do they attack?
- What is their weakness?
- What is their goal?
- What defenses are there against them?
(Oh, don’t pretend…I know that’s what you’re thinking. Don’t worry, I have an answer for that.)
In more complex stories, particularly genre fiction, the setting is a character in and of itself. It is the writer’s job to figure out how the environment is going to interact with the hero to either help or hinder the journey. Where a character may go and how difficult the journey is dictated by the environment. For example:
- There may be dangerous storms in one area, treacherous terrain in another.
- The air near the mountains might be unbreathable due to gases escaping from deep within the planet (just saying…).
- The path to the ultimate goal of the story might run right across an enemy border.
- Quests might require a difficult, dangerous, or arduous journey that must be followed religiously to achieve success.
Now, I’m not saying to create pitfalls just to have pitfalls. Any obstacle the characters encounter should serve more of a purpose than just getting in their way. Generally this takes the shape of some geological feature or location that is dangerous for a variety of reasons and just happens to be smack dab in the middle of where the main character and their friends need to go. Your task as the writer is to make these features challenging and threatening, without making them seem hopeless. There must be some potential for escape, no matter how slim.
Personality. Each person has internal rules for behavior, their own gauge for determine what is and is not acceptable. One of the greatest methods of creating conflict in a story is to force a character to act outside of those rules. The lesser of two evils, as it were. Crisis of conscience is a common method of building tension into a story; work it with a gentle hand and balance it carefully with the impression you want to give the reader of the character. Let’s face it…if you want the reader to be sympathetic to the character, it is harder to fudge these types of rules. Once you establish what a character does or does not consider acceptable behavior you have to maintain that personality if you want to hold the reader.
The Rules of Society
So, above we dealt with rules that just are; now we move on to rules that are imposed or implied. Any group living in close proximity—both animal and sentient—has its idea of what is and is not acceptable. Some is guided by instinct, others by experience. No matter how dumb a rule might seem it originated from some specific situation that someone determined was unacceptable, thus regulation and enforcement of the desired behaviors. Here…let me break it down further:
Social. You’ve heard the phrase “It’s just not done,” yes? Well, these are the unofficial rules. That means they are not legally binding but carry consequences determined by the community or social grouping a person belongs to or interacts with. There is generally—but not always—a logical reason for the development of these rules. For example, a century or two ago it was expected a man would always walk on the outside when walking with a lady down the street, a social convention that developed from the fact that people used to dump their chamber pots out the window into the gutter. With the man on the outside (street side) he is protecting the woman from being doused with waste. Other conventions develop more out of social class than an actual desire to protect individuals (such as one man slapping another man in the face with a glove over some slight (perceived or actual) requiring both men to duel). And finally, a need for self-defense accounts for other unspoken rules, such as the reason we drive on the right side of the road…originally it was horse-drawn wagons in the Old West and the pioneers kept to the right when passing opposing traffic so they could have a clear shot with their guns to defend themselves if needed.
- Some things to consider when devising social rules for your world or culture:
- Are their classes or casts?
- Are there distinctions between what is acceptable determined by gender?
- What are the living conditions that would lead to the rule in question?
- What are the consequences of violating these social mores?
Legal. Legal rules can have two objectives: Protect or Control. In theory, and in an ideal society most laws are instituted to protect persons and property from inappropriate acts by other persons. Examples would be:
- Livestock must be penned to prevent them from trampling people or damaging property.
- People must have insurance when they drive to ensure they can pay for damages and injury should they cause an accident.
- Sidewalks must be kept in good repair to prevent pedestrians from tripping and hurting themselves.
- Cars may not be parked on the grass.
- Two hour parking limit only.
- No liquor to be sold on Sundays (or before noon, or whatever variants there are.)
- Don’t eat meat on Fridays.
- Don’t drink of the fruit or the grain (alcohol).
- A woman does not show her hair, face, etc. in public.
Overcoming the Rules
Since it is bad form to have a conflict that your characters have no hope of overcoming you have to consider how that can plausibly be achieved. Simple enough to do. Here are a few examples:
- Give your character a super-skill, some ability that makes them particularly suited either circumventing the rule in question or that makes it not apply.
- Have an object or talisman that can be obtained that will help the hero achieve what needs to be done.
- Give the character a hand…or several, by writing in support characters that either have a skill that will overcome the conflict(s) faced through combined effort and cooperation.
- Develop a benefactor who can smooth the way if the infraction is discovered.
- If the obstacle (rule) is environmental in nature, write in some other natural feature that would allow the character to overcome the obstacle if they are ingenious enough to recognize its usefulness.
Sometimes there will be no way to circumvent the rules. Hey…it happens, in both real life and in fiction. And each time it does everyone has a choice whether to respect the rules or break them. That means there are going to be times your characters chose wrong. Maybe it is because a moment of weakness or ignorance, maybe it is because the consequences of not breaking the rule is worse. Don’t be afraid for your characters to take a fall now and then…temporary or otherwise.
I’m sure I haven’t covered everything here, but you get the idea. Basically, when it comes down to it, rules in fiction exist so the author can find a way around them, adding tension, excitement, and action to a tale for the purpose of propelling the plot forward (and entertaining the reader). In other words…as writers we need to make our characters work for it, whatever “it” is. After all, readers don’t want a walk through the park…they want a Navy SEALs obstacle course, something tough enough that it seems it might almost be too much for the hero. Almost. Very important to remember the “almost.”