A couple of days ago I was reading a post on a blog I follow, Life in the Realm of Fantasy, and it posed the question about crisis points for a character. Her example was driving down a road where the signs are missing, but the character keeps driving anyway. I think of a fork in the road—one looks peaceful but long, the other ominous yet short. A character takes the short cut. If you have a minute, you should definitely read her post, Crisis and the Point of No Return—it’ll get you thinking. It certainly did that for me. Are bad decisions necessary for a good story?
Try this story: Once there was a woman who received a mysterious letter in the mail. In it she was promised adventures and a great treasure if she agrees to participate in a game fraught with peril. She tears up the letter and says, “Do you think I’m crazy?” and continues with her day.
It was a sound decision. Who in their right mind responds to letters from strangers promising prizes only if the participant agrees to danger? Maybe that’s why so many fantasy novels take place in the past—our modern minds imagine scams, conspiracies, and other rational explanations. The scenario only becomes a story if the woman agrees to the terms, which the everyday person would consider a bad idea. It’s what makes books, TV shows and movies so appealing.
As a child, I was very practical. I got into trouble like any other kid, but I was rarely foolish. I saved that kind of thinking for my reading. In reading I was allowed to take the forbidden path and hunt for treasure. My books were about kids who jumped on their bikes after dark and headed for the haunted house in order to free some ghost from a curse. I watched the Goonies and thought they were nuts, but I was glad someone was crazy enough to poke in dank caves for me.
Writers are pushed to make situations difficult for their characters. In fantasy, it isn’t enough that the protagonist has a speech impediment—she has to be the only person who can read the magic spell that saves the kingdom and do so without a mistake. Why does she have to do it? If any of us were presented with a similar situation, we’d hide under our beds until the crisis was over.
So, does it follow that bad decisions lead to good stories? Maybe yes, maybe no, but sensible decisions rarely become novels.
Special thanks to Connie Jasperson, blogger for Life in the Realm of Fantasy, whose great post sparked an idea for my bloggers block!