“Should Have” and “Would Have”

I happened across a great tweet the other day, about plot and character:

This tweet in particular caught my eye, because it related so nearly to a conversation I’d been having with a couple of friends.

Lots of characters make decisions we wouldn’t make. Sometimes admire them for it (a hero bravely sacrifices to save others) and sometimes we hate them for it (a villain mercilessly sacrifices others for his own gain). And, sometimes, we just don’t get it, and that’s where it gets messy.

If a character makes a decision I wouldn’t, but it’s believable for that character to do such a thing, that’s good writing. I may not agree with the character’s decision, but I understand his motivation enough that I’m willing to follow him through the consequences. (And it’s probably entertaining, as I get to vicariously experiment with choices I personally wouldn’t make — one reason we read!)

As a friend of mine recently said about Molly in Jim Butcher’s series The Dresden Files, “Just because you’re a believably-written sixteen-year-old girl doesn’t mean I have to like you.” He doesn’t like Molly, but he believes Molly. Molly makes some dumb decisions — but we know enough about her to believe she would make them, and so we stay with the story.

Where it gets ugly is where a character makes a decision for the sake of the author’s convenience, not because of his own developed motivations, and the decision seems to hit the reader out of left field. “Huh? What? Why did that just happen?” We’ve all seen these moments in books or films and felt cheated — and yep, we were.

My current project features a major decision by a protagonist which will anger a lot of readers. A few of my test readers have gotten quite… vocal regarding their disagreement with him. (At least I know they were emotionally involved!) My challenge was to make his unpopular decision believable, so while the reader may feel he’s making the wrong choice, they know why he’s doing it and believe he would (and don’t feel cheated by contrivance).

I knew I was on the right track for this when beta reader Kelly pointed out this character had already made a similar decision twice before this one, so it was disturbing but not surprising when it happened again at the moment of truth. I’m still going to polish it, of course, but it’s not a jarring gap in his story.

Sometimes we’re just glad we don’t have to face the decisions some characters do — but that pressure to make an impossible decision can make it easier for the reader to empathize and believe the character acted as he did under stress. I’m reading the graphic novel Saga by Brian K. Vaughn, and a young mother was just given a horrific choice: watch her mortally-wounded beloved husband die, leaving her and her infant alone in a harsh environment and likely to die themselves, or bind a strange ghost to her two-day-old daughter’s soul to save their lives. Which is the right decision? Can you really argue that? Whatever she does, I’m going to read on with her, because really, what would I do in that situation?

What favorite characters  made decisions you would not have made, but you understood why they did?

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  1. Finally…time to submit my panel.

  2. All of these tracks make me happy inside.

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