Common Writing Mistake: Illogical Characters

Creating characters is like playing a role playing game.  In fact, now that I think about it, games like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder are fantasy writing.  The point being that you have to create your characters with abilities and limitations and then adhere to them in order to create a believable adventure.

Continuing with the RPG (Role Playing Game) example, if a character has 20 health left and a sword with 5 attack, that's all that character gets.  It's very straightforward.  It means that once that character's health gets below 20, he's dead.  If that character is facing a monster, the maximum amount of damage that he can inflict with one hit is 5.  So a monster with 10 health would require two hits.

I'm using the RPG example because it involves numbers.  Numbers are simple and creating an immersive world for readers is not.  However, the "environmental logic" is the same.  Characters must adhere to a set of rules--that are created by the author--that allow for them to interact with the environment in a certain way.

Illogical characters are something that I see a lot while beta reading.  To me, it's a very natural mistake for inexperienced writers.  A book is born from an idea.  And ideas for books usually hinge on large scale plot rather than character.  The writer fixates on this idea, which is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself.  The trap is that the idea becomes all-consuming.  Certain plot elements MUST happen (so the writer thinks) or else the entire idea is ruined.

What this leads to is illogical characters.  By being fixated on plot, the writer forces the environment to dictate the characters' actions rather than the characters' reactions being a natural result of the environment.

To continue with the RPG example, if the hero with 5 attack is facing a monster with 5,000 health one of two things must happen in order for the story to continue is a logical fashion:

1) The hero must acquire a new skill or weapon that allows him to have a much higher attack

OR

2) Something must happen to the monster that makes the monster's health much lower

In other words, the options available to the writer must be dictated by the stated limitations and not "just because I said so."  All too often the following sequence of events take place is stories:

  • The super powerful monster is presented with no prior mention of any weakness.
  • The hero must face the monster but nothing is mentioned earlier in the story that will make him more powerful.
  • Writer inserts random event (such as a random character never seen before or a random power never before mentioned) in order to resolve the story
The reason why this is an issue is because, as I just mentioned, it comes across as random.  Everything previously mentioned about the characters comes across as pointless to the reader.  Why did the character go through all those adventures only to have a random event solve everything in the end anyway?

In order to create a satisfying reading experience, the solution to the story's conflict must be presented before the final resolution (aka the end fight scene).  This doesn't mean spoil the ending.  It means lay the groundwork for the story to resolve in a logical fashion.

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