You Can Bring a Horse to Water But … (by Dianne Salerni)

When is a snag in your plot not the fault of your plot?

When it’s really a problem of character.

Sometimes, you need your character to do something in order to move your plot along and bring it to its planned conclusion.  You know what he must do. It’s right in your outline, for heaven’s sake!  But no matter how you finagle the circumstances, you can’t quite make him DO it …

This probably means you’re asking your character to behave OUT OF character, just for your convenience.  You want him to say something or do something – and he knows it’s wrong.  He knows it doesn’t make sense.  And for your own good, he balks like a stubborn horse.

Don’t panic! It doesn’t mean that you have to completely trash your plot.  Usually, it means you have to give up a few pre-conceived notions and look at the problem a different way. Consider your characters – and listen to them.

In a recent WIP, I needed a 14-year-old boy to commit a heinous act.  The act itself wasn’t the problem.  He’d been brought up to think he was doing the right thing – brainwashed, even. The problem was this: I needed him to gloat about it to his older brother in a place and at a time when the brother could intervene and prevent it from happening.

I was so certain this kid would be boastful and defiant.  He was angry at his older brother, resentful and jealous, with major abandonment issues.  But I couldn’t figure out why he would brag about his act of destruction before it was accomplished – let alone in a location where his brother could thwart him.  There was something too cartoon-villainous about it: Ah, Batman! I’ve left Robin in the next room, hanging above a pit of boiling oil, slowly being lowered to his doom! Bwa-ha-ha-ha!  Nope, it just wasn’t working.

My crit partners even expressed reservations about the boy committing the act at all.  One said, “I can’t believe he’d do it if she was going to get hurt.” (Yes, there was a she. There’s always a she.)  And that ended up being the key to my problem.  The kid might have planned the act, set it in motion, and even believed himself capable of seeing it through – until he realized she was in danger. And then everything would change.

He wouldn’t gloat. He’d turn to his brother in horror and regret. “I made a mess of it, Mick. I didn’t mean for her to get hurt!” Those were his lines, the lines I was looking for.

The boy might have been a screwed-up, misguided “little ball of fury” – as one of my crit partners described him – but he wasn’t a cartoon villain. He cared about that girl, and to realize it, all I had to do was stop trying to shove his head in the water trough and listen to him!


A huge thanks to the fabulous Dianne Salerni, author of We Hear the Dead, for contributing this post. Be sure to come by West Chester, PA to meet her and several other YA authors. Details here.