Minimum, Conservative, Necessary: Overdoing Character’s Actions

doing nothing“Why did they do that?

When you find yourself wondering why a character in a book or on screen is taking certain action, sometimes the problem is nature.

Nature conserves energy, physical and mental. We don’t take actions which we don’t believe are the minimum conservative necessary action. Our wiring makes us look for the easy solution to whatever comes our way. And if it’s something we can ignore, inaction is the ultimate conservation. We do nothing. Lots of it.

Making our characters do something because it’s good for the story is weak writing. Readers will sense something’s amiss because they instinctively grasp nature’s imperative.

I’m highly unlikely to walk out to the frozen edge of the lake and look around, just so some storyteller can make me find a body and let them get on writing their mystery.

But I Really Need It to Happen

“One day, Marge walked to the post office instead of mailing the letter from home.”

Marge is behaving contrary to nature.

Unless she has a reason.

Writing is the process of increasing complications for our characters. If we’ve told our readers about Marge

  • waking up too late for the brunch with Gertrude
  • rushing out to the garage and discovering her car won’t start
  • then realizing the mailman is rounding the far corner because, being a substitute, he ran the route backwards today

— now, when we mention that this letter absolutely had to be postmarked today, Marge just might choose walking over a taxi (though we’d better have addressed personality characteristics making that choice her minimum necessary conservative action.)

When we know Marge, actions which wouldn’t make sense in our own lives might make sense for her. They are, in her circumstances, with her personality, the smallest actions she can take to get the job done.

Therein lies one of the 5 purposes of setup, the first 1/4 of your novel: showing us why your characters will take the actions you need them to take for your story to begin, progress, and end.

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