Saturday, March 10, 2012

Character Mistakes

Today I wanted to tell you all about how bad character decisions make good stories, using a scene from my novel The Treasure Hunter's Lady. Let me set you up:
For some unknown (to the hero, Abel) reason, Romy has climbed this thirty-foot rope from the deck of the airship to this tiny little board under the hydrogen balloon. Abel's afraid of heights, but when he sees that Romy went up without a safety harness, he's concerned enough to try to control his fear. Unfortunately, they've had an argument the night before and she's not very happy with him. She knows good and well he doesn't like flying.
His eyes tracked Romy's graceful transfer from the rope to the board. She got to her feet and bowed to the deck with flourish like a circus performer. Despite the wind tearing at her clothes, she rummaged in the bag and removed some tools.
 The rope was positioned a good foot from the board. Abel made three clumsy attempts to swing over to it before he finally grabbed one end and managed to pull himself onto the weathered plank.
It shook and for the first time he saw a hint of fear pass over Romy's face before she glared at him. It's perfectly safe up here. Don't you just adore the view?”
 The smile fell away, replaced by words spoken through gritted teeth. “Why do you care where I spend my time? It's not as if we're lovers, or even friends. We're nothing to each other, Abel. Go back to the nice, safe deck and don't concern yourself with the tasks I've volunteered for.”
Mental and frustrating. “I care, dammit. I don't want to see you get hurt. You didn't even take precautions.”
She cupped her ear and pretended surprise. “Sorry, I thought you said you care. But that can't be what you said, because you made it clear last night that the less we have to do with each other, the better off we'll be.”
He switched tactics, softening his voice. “Romy, Maggard is going to be very upset if he finds out you fell to you death because you were too stubborn to talk to me in a civil conversation.”
She took three steps to him and pushed her finger into his chest. “Why do you keep calling him by his given name? I doubt you could even fathom what he would think about this.”
The plank swayed again.
“Let's just take this below and work out what happened last night,” he coaxed, wishing he dared let of the rope long enough to wipe his sweaty hands on his pants.
 Romy turned her back on him, all her weight transferred to one leg.
The Ursula Ann lurched. Abel lunged and grabbed Romy around the waist. The world tipped as the board slipped from beneath his feet. Her arms shot around his neck and restricted his airflow. For a small chunk of forever, the only things filling his vision were the brilliant blue sky and white, fluffy clouds. Then his stomach clenched. The gray-brown deck and a gaggle of astonished faces rushed up at them. Tendrils of Romy's hair escaped the braid and stung his face.
The deck stopped just shy of crushing their bones to powder. Or rather, the safety rope stopped them from slamming into the wood. 
This is one of my favorite scenes, but someone asked me why Abel went after her. She'd have been perfectly safe if he hadn't interfered. Got up there, repaired the balloon and got down without all that wasted time. Let's examine my motive for forcing a character into a position he wasn't really prepared to take on. It wasn't just because I'm the author and I say so.
There are a lot reasons for doing something stupid. Driving too fast because it's fun, stealing out of the cookie jar before a healthy dinner because cookies taste good, getting a tattoo because, well, it was spring break and everyone was doing it. Those are, admittedly, bad reasons for doing things that can end in bad results.
I suck at math, but I was always pretty good at logistics. So let's play with logic. The old if this happens, then this is the consequence. If Romy hadn't gone up to repair the balloon, then Abel wouldn't have gone up either. If Abel hadn't gone up, then Romy would have come down sooner. If Abel hadn't gone up, the next scene couldn't have happened. Because in the scene after, we find out what's Romy hang up is, why she believes her father hates her and why she followed Abel.  
Abel's intention was pure. A woman he cared for had managed to get herself into a situation that was extremely dangerous, given the altitude of the airship and her lack of safety precautions. He could have let her gone about her business then chewed her out for it when she got back to the deck. We're going to assume here that everything went smoothly and she didn't notice him down there because Romy's so stubborn she'd probably have stayed up there just to irritate him. Except there's that line right before the end--The Ursula Ann lurched.
That was the turning point the scene. The one where she either lived or died (which would have made a pretty poor ending halfway through a romance novel without their relationship blooming). Also, it was about showing character strength. In the big picture, Abel's after a legendary jewel he needs to save lives. In the smaller picture, he didn't necessarily overcome his fear, but he put it aside for a better purpose. He'd already promised himself he'd look after her because he was brought up to treat ladies a certain way (even though she pushed him at every turn) and at this point in the story they were undeniably attracted to one another.
I realize I kind of just gave away what's going to happen next, but I gave you sparse details and the whole almost splattering against an airship deck is crumbs compared to what these two face later. Let me remind you when you're thinking about a scene, the whole idea is to move the story forward, which is precisely what this scene did for me, hopefully for amost everyone.

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Brenda said...

I loved this scene. LOL, and I love Romy--she makes me laugh. And the way Abel deals with her is excellent and funny.

I always visit your blog and I'm following you on twitter.

Yep, I'm stalking you all over!

Sheri Fredricks said...

This is honestly one of the best posts I've read on why and how a character makes a mistake and steps out of their comfort zone.

Good Job!