I get a lot from being a member of a writing group. One really useful distinction keeps cropping up.
A group member recently pinpointed it, while commenting on another member’s story: ‘I think the dog needs a better reason to lick the lamppost.’
He was right. There was an excellent outcome to the lamppost being licked (I won’t spoil it), but why does the dog want to do it? Why does the chicken cross the road? Because it’s interesting and picaresque, because it moves the plot along? But why should the dog/chicken care for the progress of the plot?
Writers sometimes know exactly where they want their characters to be, but haven’t given them much intrinsic motivation to get there (this is perhaps particularly true in early drafts). So when the writing group asks why the chicken crosses the road, the writer talks about external considerations: ‘Because the chicken needs to be there by the time the fox arrives.’ ‘At the start of the next chapter, the lamppost needs be covered in dogspittle.’ Character motivation has been overridden by mechanics. Author ‘needs’ overpower character ‘wants’.
Over several writing groups (and seeing it in my own work) I’ve developed a rule of thumb – that the more ambitious the mechanical explanation, the more desperately an in-world explanation is lacking. Characters are dangerously thin if their author is replying: ‘the chicken needs to cross the road because in the fifth book of the series…’
This feels parallel to a distinction that crops up when I’m teaching literature – that there are explanations about the internal world of a story, and explanations about the contexts and choices around it, and students need to be able to discuss both, without confusing them. So when you ask ‘does Mrs Evillady have to die?’ you can answer like this: ‘Yes! She was about to blow up a train!’ But also like this: ‘Maybe not – why does this text keep placing female characters in situations where shooting them is heroic?’
I suspect the complaint that a character has ‘run away with’ an author, or refuses to do what they say, may sometimes hinge on this distinction. A character can have a solid in-world reason to catch the bus/seduce the cloakroom attendant/slay the usurper. And they may only have a whisper of a suggestion from the author that they would be better off waiting at the bus-stop/possessing their soul in patience/serving their revenge cold (so that in book eight of the series things can really kick off…)
I remember having terribly trouble getting my protagonist up a set of stairs. I don’t usually feel my characters have independent life, so I was surprised when she wouldn’t budge. The scene just kept snagging. Unpicking it, I found that there were logistical problems (doors to be unlocked, staff to be incapacitated). But the main problem was a lack of character motivation. Why was she going up the stairs? Why do it just then? (Because I needed her to help her faithful companions who were in peril upstairs, but she didn’t know that.)
I will be bearing this all in mind the next time I need a dog to lick a lamppost, and the dog’s not cooperating.