Keeping your characters under control – a guest post by Delilah des Anges

4 November 2012

Polly Mazlowsczy attacks Nancy Oakes, by B.L. Becotte. A scene from one of Delilah’s novels.

“Write me something about writing,” Melanie said, about six months ago.

“I will when I’ve thought of something,” said I.

Bearing in mind how slowly my brain apparently works, it’s probably not a good idea to take this too seriously: realism and its effects on narrative.

One of my favourite adventure books and all-round exciting romp Glass Books of the Dream Eaters was written, according to author G W Dahlquist, by “writing the characters into a hole and letting them get themselves out of it”. The approach shows in the story, which is breathless and action-heavy and leaves the reader constantly on the edge of their seat, but what I really appreciated about the book was the surprising dedication to realism.

Granted, it was in a world where women could be infused with magical glass and turned into living statues, but that just made the adherence all the more remarkable. Characters who kept going for a day and a night were physically exhausted and less able to fight than those fully-rested, and characters with a poor head for heights proceeded less gracefully along rooftops than those accustomed to leaping from them.

It seems blindingly obvious, but there is always the temptation when writing to stretch the limits of a character’s abilities (or worse, the laws of physics) in order to achieve whatever goal or plot-point you’ve planned out. The problem with that is that it can become dull, or predictable, or seem contrived: oh how convenient, he avoided the falling branch or his cut didn’t go septic. The problem is exacerbated in historical fiction, where the honest oversight of different conditions can lead to unrealistic recoveries from injuries and a bad case of James Bond Syndrome.

One alternative is of course to exercise caution on the part of the characters and never have them travel too far or encounter any particular danger, but that becomes boring for both reader and writer. It’s far better to have your characters face up to situations realistic to their task and circumstances and let the circumstances dictate the bumps in their road.


Given a character who has to make his way ten miles from point A to point B, with a certain income level and a certain time period, there is the temptation to have some friendly villager mysteriously lend the fellow a horse. It is more likely, and more interesting, to have the fellow either steal a horse (repercussions, potential pursuit, a reputation for criminality, bridges burned, and the sudden presence of a horse it would be imprudent to just get rid of), or to make him walk the whole way (possible injury, inclement weather, likelihood of footpads, possibility of arriving too late to stop thing y from occurring). Both options carry penalties, increase the tension, and carry the possibility diverting the course of the plot.

Putting additional obstacles in the way of your hero is, of course, a necessity for an exciting story. No one cares about whether they achieve their goal if it’s never in any doubt that they will: although conversely one does have to keep the number and nature of obstacles to a realistic range in keeping with the circumstances of the story. It’s entirely possible your hero will have the bad luck to turn his ankle while running for his lady, catch a chill while soldiering bravely on in the rain, and be set upon by wolves while vulnerable from injury and illness, but it’s stretching credulity somewhat to then chuck a giant fibreglass cow out of the sky at the poor sod as well.

As your excellent hostess Melanie here pointed out when I pitched this post to her, this is a big problem in writing historical fiction in particular. There are events which you KNOW have happened: there are locations you KNOW your characters were at, and you know, if you’re lucky, their means of locomotion and when they arrived where and what illnesses they suffered. But you still have to work out their personality, and how that personality can coexist with the actions you know them to have been involved with, and what internal strife they must pass through to allow them to do the things you KNOW they’ve done, and which may be at odds with the persona that every contemporary reported about them.

Anyone who has read Melanie’s first book, The Secret Diary of a Princess: a novel of Marie Antoinette, will know that your hostess & mine here has little difficulty in conveying both emotional growth and the internal strife and decision-making that accompany ructions within a historical character’s life. She’s also nailed the limitations and heightened dangers of disease that preyed upon people of the past, which can so often slip the minds of other writers. The rest of us have to work on putting ourselves in the shoes (often ill-fitting and leaky) of our heroes and heroines: how far can a thirteen year old girl run? How far can she run when she ran as far as she could yesterday too? How far can she run when she’s hungry? When she’s desperate? when her father’s life hangs in the balance? Can desperation outweigh the simple needs of a human body, and for how long?

Unbound from historical precedent, questions like those above can take the story into new directions. What happens if our heroine DOESN’T make it in time, because she physically cannot keep going that long without food or rest? The story can become something entirely different: a matter of revenge, instead of redemption. And the character grows into someone very different too.

This “for the want of a nail” form of storytelling – or Chaos Theory plotting, if you prefer – is all the more compelling because it’s how real life actually unfolds around is: sometimes, people don’t dodge out of the speeding car in time, and they don’t die, either.

As mankind has been telling stories for a good few thousand years, various expectations have begun to build up, and predictable forms of narrative have grown in most audiences. Sometimes adhering to these formats can require courses of events which strain credability, are heavy on coincidence, or simply thud along a well-worn rut with no alarms, no surprises, and no suspense. Occasionally, it can be better to allow things to run a natural rather than narrative course, and give your readers a bit of a surprise.

Delilah Des Anges has rambled on about how how to use poverty to drive a story and other high-handed concepts, and frequently fails to take her own advice.

Thanks Del! I would wholeheartedly recommend taking a look at her book How Not To Write, By Someone Who Doesn’T for a really fascinating look at the process of writing fiction, poetry and short stories complete with loads of excellent tips on how to improve your writing. I would KILL to be able to write even half so well as Del…