Leave your characters alone

Yeah, it's a play on words. This is a writing tip, of sorts. It wants to become a several thousand word post, but I'm going to try to focus.

Where do you feel safe? Most folks choose their home or room. Others might choose a crowd somewhere. This is because humans have an instinct for personal safety.

Even children will crawl into bed with parents to feel safe. Now let's turn this on its head.

We see characters who meet the villain in a crowded place. This is to eliminate some perceived danger the villain poses. We take away the villain's power – temporarily.

Now place your heroine deep in the desert. It's nighttime. She has her rape whistle in one hand, and a keychain pepper spray in the other. It's only 50 miles from the nearest person who can hear the whistle. Add in a two headed werewolf and you're golden.

The environment adds an underlying stress of its own. This also plays to human instinct, and you don't even have to explain it. Your heroine doesn't have any water in this desert. It's going to be scorching tomorrow- if she lives that long. Maybe there are rattlesnakes around too.

Think about one you've all seen before. Sheriff Brody and friends are in a small boat on the ocean. Captain Quint smashed the radio, and there is a killer shark with a powerful hunger.

If you've never been in a rat bag old boat and out of sight of land, you've missed out. (I've been in that situation.) I felt cheated when they swam to shore at the end. Until that point, they were out to sea.

You can't swim all that far. Even lovely water is still colder than your body temperature. Eventually, you're going to tire out, and the warmth is going to get sucked from your body. People instinctively know this. It adds stress to the story without losing focus on the killer shark.

If the shark gets bored and leaves, hypothermia and drowning are still real possibilities.

I like to move my characters around. Even leaving town adds a subtle smolder to the story. Wrong turn in the big city. Apple Maps that can't be trusted. There are all kinds of possibilities.

I like to plan these things out ahead of time. Last Saturday, I watched two NPCs running behind Dr. Who to escape a monster. They're all together, and within touching distance. One woman made a hard left and hid inside a room. She actually watched the others run the other way. The monster killed her.

Nobody wants this. This is bad. Your character shouldn't ask to be excused at the dinner table like this. “Great dinner, Mom. I'm going into the creepy cornfield now to confront the monster with a paper clip and a Swiss Army knife.”

To avoid this you should have a plan that both moves into isolation, and a logical escape plan. It hasn't been acceptable for the cavalry to arrive at the last second for decades.

Isolation can be used at any point in the story, but it nearly must be used at the end. This is where the hero faces the villain on the villain's turf. This is the part where I want to stretch this into a huge post, but I'll resist. In books, everything ties together but I'll focus.

Note that Sheriff Brody didn't lock the shark in an interview room. It all went down at sea.

This isolation can be physical, like Sandra Bullock drifting through space, but there is an opportunity for it to be more spiritual too. Maybe your heroine refuses a marriage proposal from the most eligible bachelor in front of everyone at her daddy's country club. They all want something she simply does not. She follows her heart and becomes a sponge diver in Florida. She was isolated in a crowd.

Unfamiliar settings and isolation are powerful things. The bad guy has an advantage, and skewing the odds adds that delicious tension a good story needs. Many times you get the advantage of an inbred fear to underly the main points.

So how about it? Do you ever think about this writing tool? Do you plan for it? Possibly outline around it? I do, but I know there are many seat of the pants writers who may have different methods.

Let me hear it in the comments. (I used copy and paste to set this up. It all looks great. If it comes out as one big paragraph, I won't be able to edit it for hours. I'm busy at work when this posts.)


Filed under Writing

30 responses to “Leave your characters alone

  1. Very interesting. I don’t think I’ve actively conceptualized a plan for isolation, but it’s worked out that way in all three of my novels. Relative isolation, anyway, and certainly in a setting foreign to my protag, with the antag having the advantage. Nice to think of it in a more concrete fashion. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m basically a seat of the pants writer though I outline the basics. In my latest manuscript, I found my heroine alone on a dock with my protagonist. They’re both powerful witches, but my heroine is really pissed. Pissed and powerful can be an awesome combination!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Always nice to see how you put a story together. Alone is a good place for a character (especially if he or she doesn’t understand where they are.)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ali Isaac

    Yes! Being alone for Conor was his biggest fear! So of course it happened. Several times. He survived, but it didnt take away the fear. I’m a pantser, though. I plot only the very basics. The characters do practically everything else and run the show. I never analyse as much as you do, although I think I probably should. Enjoyed this Craig… and it copy pasted perfectly!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Leaving your characters in powerless situations makes them all the more appealing when they beat the odds. Excellent post, Craig.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. What about villains who would attack the hero in the middle of a crowd? That is kind of scary because it means no place is safe. As for the isolation, I think I use it without realizing it. The lone hero cut off from his friends going up against the monster is always a tense scene. Maybe one where he/she is injured and accidentally left behind, so there’s that question of if they’ll be rescued or find a way to do it themselves.

    The Doctor Who scenario does sound strange. I’m guessing they had the character split from the group to hide instead of continue running? That is a legitimate reaction in some ways. Not if she’s been running with the group for so long. This is something I’ve been looking into recently because we always think we’ll keep a level head when scared. In reality, most humans react very poorly when in the role of prey.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Fish out of water scenarios (even if they’re sharks! ;-)) always give good mileage. Maybe it’s something to do with adrenalin, which can be felt vicariously by the writer when the characters start doing their own talking and thinking… πŸ˜€

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Very interesting.
    I actually have a good grasp of this, but of course, my characters lean toward avoiding being alone, or develop compulsions to deal with being alone. πŸ˜‰

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Good tip, I felt the tension just reading this post! (That isn’t a joke, I mean it!).

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Great st Craig! As you know I write in the first person and I’m a kinesetic learner so I’m all about how it makes you feel. An interetsing writing excersise I want ti try at some point is to write a story from the four different learning group’s point of view: aural, visual, verbal and kinesetic. It could be interesting. BTW if you’re not already doing it, when you copy and paste, paste the text into the html tab not the text tab and the formatting will copy over. Hope yhat makes sense πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Reblogged this on Anita & Jaye Dawes and commented:
    great post! very informative and helpful…

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Excellent post, Craig! I try to remind myself when I write about the situations that people normally feel uncomfortable with, but you’ve laid it out well in this post. Charles has a great reminder, as well, about putting characters in situations they normally avoid. Fish out of water, indeed! Anytime we can make our characters uncomfortable will add tension to the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I guess we have instincts in common. Although I don’t specifically plan for my characters to be alone, it usually ends up happening at some point. Often it precedes a crisis. For instance, in The Grimhold Wolf, Thomas had to be alone so he could be taken prisoner. That took some finagling, since I usually have small groups of 2 or 3 characters. More interesting to frame events as a conversation than just one character’s thoughts.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Outstanding post, Craig. You’ve given me a great idea for the story I’m polishing. May have to add another scene or two.

    Liked by 1 person

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