Sometimes, we writers can be a heinous bunch. We give birth to our characters, write life into them, give them hopes and dreams, and send them out into a world that we loveingly created just for them; only to dash their hopes, torment their dreams and torture them hideously until they are forced to change in order to cope.
The problem comes when we’re too mean to them. It’s not uncommon for a writer to lead their characters into a trap from which it appears impossible to escape. Then what?
Case in point
My main character, Jal, and his mentor Witteum find themselves in the temple of the predominant religion in the Citadel. They discover a horrifying secret in its catacombs, but are trapped during their escape in a treasure room, where the ill-gotten gains of the cult are stowed.
In a room with two exits, both of which covered by a dozen club-wielding monks, the pair stand back to back, repelling the attacks of their assailants with a diamond-studded crosier and a ceremonial dagger plundered from the cache of valuables.
The rector of the cult, Matthias, arrives – he cannot afford for the secret to reach the population and so keeps them talking as his monks edge closer to the pair.
Death seems inescapable.
When I get to a point like this in the narrative, I stop and list all the possible ways my characters might prevail, and note next to each suggestion why it is shit and awful and inherently impossible. Here’s mine:
HOW TO ESCAPE
• They fight through the monks
– unlikely – Jal has no training and they are outnumbered 10 to 1. Also, the monks are double-‘ard.
• Witteum sacrifices himself so Jal can escape
– why would he? They are not close friends and Jal got him in this mess in the first place.
• Persuade Matthias to hand them to the authorities
– why would he? He can’t risk the secret getting out.
• Rescued by Rewa (the leader of a guerrilla insurrection)
– but how does she know they’re down there?
o She has spies in the temple? – then why did she need Jal & Witteum?
o She just fucking assumes? – WEAK
o Saw them go in? – ALSO WEAK
• War occurs
– too soon (war will break out, but not yet)
• They manage to take Matthias captive
– hard to do (and done once, when they first arrived!)
• They manage to turn some of the monks, who don’t know the temple secret
– there’s no way Matthias would bring someone into his inner circle without revealing everything and ensuring they were loyal.
• Barter with Matthias
– what does he want that they have? He’s the most powerful man in a corrupt religion with the Senate at his feet…
o He likes maps? – THIS IS SHIT
o Sexual favours? – Too important to risk on a blowy!
• FUCKING EARTHQUAKE
– I don’t even
• One of them has some explosives
– they haven’t been invented
– this exists nowhere else
• A giant dragon squeezes itself into the room and eats their souls
– THERE ARE NO DRAGONS, CONCENTRATE
• It was all a dream
– you’re not helping
• Rewrite to make it easier to escape
– now THIS is a decent idea
• Jal has bloodlust and manages to kill the monks next to Matthias?
– with no training? He just goes crazy with a knife? Ñññyyyyyyynnnññyyyy no
• Jal starts destroying the valuables
– wouldn’t Matthias just kill them?
• There’s a trapdoor/manhole
– it’s a dungeon’s treasure room, there is no reason for a trapdoor
• Sod it, they all die.
So, which did I pick? Well, I’ll leave that as a surprise. But which would you pick? Or maybe you think you’ve got a better idea? (God, I hope so.)