The Weakening Plan, or, How to Make Sure You’re Being Nasty to Your Characters
When I started writing, I had some great ideas and some great characters. Characters I likedm whether they were good or bad. The trouble was that I just didn’t want to do anything bad to them. No trouble, no nasty accidents. I had my characters run at the first sign of trouble. Given that drama is when bad things happen to people we like, you can see my problem.
One of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing a short story (from his book ‘Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction’), is:
‘Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.’
That’s a great idea put really well. Characters need adversity to stand up against, monsters to fight, difficult choices and dilemmas to face. People have different ideas on how to plan this in their work, but here’s one idea that really helped me out. I use it mainly for sci-fi or adventure stories and I’ve found it’s a great way for me to get into planning and critically examining what I put my characters through.
The weakening plan.
When I was first introduced to the concept, it was presented to me in a way that I could really get to grips with and use from the outset – videogame stats. In a game like Final Fantasy, each character has a set of attributes that can be changed through battles, challenges, new weapons, accessories and story pieces. I’d written a novel and editing it was made a whole lot easier with this tool.
The idea was to look at each chapter and, for each of my two main characters, set out their health points, skill points, weapon points and ally points, starting at 100 points (because my characters were basically in a good state at the start). Every time something happened, someone got injured, lost a gun, couldn’t use magic, or when an ally got killed, the associated points drop.
It forced me to think of how each action, revelation, fight and ally were truly important to my main characters and the story by deciding how many points they were worth, and it forced some tough choices too. Each category is only out of one hundred and it can’t go below zero.
Sometimes the points go up (with a healing potion, for example) but mostly they go down.
By the nadir (an extreme state of adversity, the lowest point of anything – which should come right before the climax) the points should be low. Not necessarily in all the categories and, if you ever use this system yourself, you might want to make your own up. It’s a good way to see on paper or screen how the danger or crisis becomes such a big thing for your characters. It’s also a good way to look at your highpoints and low points, and to come across plot holes.
Broadly, I treated weapons as anything that the characters physically use to beat adversity: so, a gun, a vial filled with a deadly virus, or a book filled with spells. Skills I treated as actions: so, the spells themselves, top spying skills, talking, or an ability to fly.
Here’s a jpeg of an analysis I did for the film The Mummy and it shows how much of danger the Rick and Evie are in is highlight by the loss of their allies, and how very little relies on their weapons, health or ability to fight. The image also shows an addition to this method, simply tracking how I felt about the character’s prospects. It’s a simplified approach, but one that shows the ups and downs of the drama, and I think it identifies the trouble spots, a moment of hope and the magnitude of these events pretty well.
… As for plot holes, here are a couple. Rick completely loses his bag of weapons before suddenly having it in his possession. Evie loses her books and research material when the boat is attacked by the Medjay, but later at the hotel in Fort Brydon, Evie and Rick are packing and unpacking several books and a type writer that belong to her. I hadn’t noticed these before, and they didn’t spoil the film for me at all… but sometimes readers and viewers can spot things more easily than the writer. Although I didn’t change my points for these plot holes (because it’s difficult to account for them), I would never have noticed them otherwise. It was really useful to me when I thought my book was water tight.
I hope you find the tool useful, or that it gives you some ideas to develop your own.