Friday, May 29, 2009

Indulge the Impulse

No one has control over their impulses; we can only manage our responses. The brave man is not the one with no fear. It’s the one who faces that fear and does what scares him, anyway. Our responses to base impulses define our character.

Writers get to have it both ways. How many of us have been less than pleased with how we handled a situation in our lives, then wrote a scene where a character does what we wish we had done originally? Maybe the fictional incident wasn’t originally intended as a do-over, but you recognized the potential as you worked on it.

The flip side is also true. Doing the right thing can be hard, draining, and initially unsatisfying. Sure, you’ll feel good later because you rose above your impulse, but it’s frustrating at the time because you really wanted to tell that asshole off! Let your characters serve this valuable and cathartic role for you. Not only are there no consequences to you, but his inappropriate or disproportionate response can add conflict to your story.

Example: My WIP has a subplot where a male cop has gone against regulations to help a couple of kids because he knows the regs will make a bad situation worse. He confides in a female cop, who has the exact opposite opinion, and has personal experience to back her up. New on the force, she goes to a superior to ask what she should do, not knowing the superior has it in for the male cop. The superior notifies Family Services, the kids are picked up, and the male cop finds himself in a difficult situation.

He accuses the woman of going to Family Services behind his back, and she comes clean. She only asked advice, didn’t know the superior would run with it, and then lays out the experience that caused her so much concern. The male cop listens, and sees she’s suffering. He imagines how hard this must have been for her, with what she’s seen, new here, not knowing who to trust. What he says is, “Don’t ever go behind my back again.”

This is, of course, absolutely the wrong thing to say, but he’s pissed. It also allows what could have been a dead end subplot to spin off its own little series of events that can carry through to another book, if I decide to make a series of this.

I strongly believe we should treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. Your characters? Resist the urge to exhibit their better natures. Hurt feelings are fodder for ideas we would not have thought of in a vacuum.

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