If a character’s family is in dire financial straits and our hero decides to rob a bank to pay off the debts that are threatening to make his family homeless, you can probably accept that as a plot for a certain kind of story.
However, if you start writing that story with just that information what you will get is a pretty flat, unengaging tale. The key element missing from the summary I provided above is why — why does the MC come up with that solution?
If you don’t know that, you don’t have a story.
Obviously, he needs money and banks have lots of money, but if I were to come up with this plan in real life nobody would think it was a daring and exciting way to pay off my mortgage, they would think I was an idiot. Just because theoretically the idea is a solution to the problem doesn’t make it a viable one, not in real life and not in fiction.
The MC needs a specific and believable reason for his actions. Maybe he used to be a bank robber but gave it up when he settled down. Or perhaps he designed the security system for the bank so knows how to bypass it. These are basic Hollywood clichés, but you can see once I give our guy a specific relevant trait, the story then makes sense.
That’s a fairly boy's own sort of example. Here’s something for the ladies. High school girl who isn’t all that popular, just a girl getting by. Captain of the football team has a row with his girlfriend (head cheerleader or some such), they break up, he’s now single. Our girl decides she’s going to make a play for him. She used to be best friends with him when they were young kids, then he got handsome and strong and popular and she was all geeky and awkward and they drifted apart. Now she decides she’s going to win him back.
So, pretty standard teen romcom style story which you can probably see sort of working.
I guarantee you it will not work—not as described anyway.
The question isn’t how will she go about winning his heart, the question is why — why would she think she’s got a shot? Why would she even bother?
If the answer is ‘just because’ or ‘sometimes people go for it’ then that’s no answer at all. For someone to do something completely out of character or just on the odd chance it might work (and hey, what do you know, thanks to a benevolent writer things somehow work out in her favour, what a surprise!) is not believable.
It’s important to know your character’s specific reasons why they think whatever they decide to do is a good idea, and to make sure the reader knows too.
Often in WIPs the reasons are presented as part of the mystery aspect of the story. Keep reading and all will be revealed. But that is a very basic mistake, and most often is just a way to hide the fact that the writer hasn’t come up with a reason and is hoping something will occur to them as they write.
The reader needs to know why this character is suitable for this plot from the outset. Plot is an extension of character. What they do tells us who they are. Random behaviour tells us nothing.
You can add supplemental reasons later, or even reveal more honest reasons, but you can’t have no reason. Because without them the reader won’t keep reading, and what good is your fantastic reveal at the end of the book if no one reads that far?
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