I’ve been reading Steven James’s book Story Trumps Structure, and that, combined with ongoing work with editing clients, has got me thinking about story structure, plot, and the driver behind all of those things: character motivation.

James starts his book by saying, literally on the second page of the text: “You do not have a story until something goes wrong.” I could not agree more. He then goes on to more or less eviscerate anything resembling a “formula” for fiction—and though I agree in spirit, I’ve found some versions of a formula to be useful tools to remind us of certain things that Steven James then goes in to remind us of himself. What’s clearly a major thrust of Story Trumps Structure is what he calls “complications”—obstacles thrown up in a character’s way that push a story forward.

In his “Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot,” pulp author Lester Dent offers really all of the same advice, jammed into a formula that on first read is a step-by-step guide to writing a 6000-word hardboiled detective story. And it is that, but in all the time I’ve conjured up Dent’s advice I’ve tried to reinforce that the formula itself is really a list of things to remember that all come down to essentially exactly what Steven James is saying: throw stuff in front of your characters that make them have to be better people in order to overcome it, or show themselves to be ordinary people by failing to do so.

See? Not scared at all!

Lester Dent uses words like “menace” and “grief,” and his advice assumes these various obstacles come from outside the hero: the villain knocks the hero out and ties him up, some innocent victim is kidnapped, some valuable thing is stolen, a booby trap has to be disarmed before the train arrives at the crossing… that sort of stuff.

Those external complications are essential to any genre story—at least to some degree—but this is where an author like Lester Dent shows the limitations of his time and the pulp magazine business model he worked under. As co-creator of Doc Savage, most of Dent’s writing (under the house name Kenneth Robeson) centers around a highly super-capable hero making his way through a monthly villain’s labyrinthine schemes—all exterior complications, all grief caused by some outside menace.

But it’s just as important—maybe even more important—to remember that whether you call them complications, obstacles, grief, or menace, your protagonists might very well be conjuring them up from within themselves. And even when they encounter the villain’s booby trap, their own internal limitations should add an extra layer of “menace” to the proceedings. If, once the booby trap is discovered, Doc Savage quickly and easily disables it, that’s not much of a complication—it’s a temporary delay, and doesn’t do much to ramp up your story’s dramatic tension. But if the booby trap is partially sprung because Doc had no idea it was there, then he goes through a period of panic because he has no idea what’s even happening at first, then figures out the trouble he’s in and has no idea how to get himself out if it, then tries something that makes it worse, and finally figures out how to get out of the trap but gets out having been injured, shaken, or otherwise affected by the trap—now you’re onto something.

This is the suspense that comes from uncertainty. Doc is uncertain as to whether or not he can survive this, your readers are uncertain as to how much worse this might get for him. And the result is dramatic tension.

Uncertainty comes from a character’s essential humanity. No one is perfect. Doc Savage might be a heck of a strong and smart guy, but the fact that he’s slipped into obscurity, especially compared to other super-capable characters like, say, Spider-man, is because he’s often barely recognizable as a person. He rarely, if ever, gets himself in trouble.

Sara Century’s article “In Defense of Bad Decisions in Horror” touches on this idea:

Critics of It Follows generally point out any number of terrible choices made by the teen protagonists of the film as their reason for disliking it, but we’re talking about teenagers here. How many bad choices did we make as teens? All of them. Every choice. Your teen years are nothing but the bad choices made by an underdeveloped personality. If that isn’t true of you, then congratulations. We’re so happy for you.

Characters need to be a product of their age, environment, upbringing, genetics, biases, traumas, desires, phobias, cultural blind-spots… all the things that make us people. I’ll let  the four authors of the Aeon article “The Value of Uncertainty” flesh this out for me:

Human experience, we believe, reflects nothing so much as the operation of predictions and uncertainty estimations along many dimensions and at many levels of processing. When all goes well, a wide range of predictions and estimations of their reliability (uncertainty) allow us to leverage everything we have been through, a whole life of experience and learning, to quickly detect those sensory patterns that matter to us, assess the reliability of our own expectations relative to the current sensory evidence, and (hence) to behave in ways that help bring about desired and beneficial patterns.

But there are dangers here too. Our predictions about the world can be mistaken or misled in various ways. Our hidden biases can sculpt how we perceive and behave in the world in ways that result in the world conforming to our mistaken view. In effect, making our mistake into a reality, which only reinforces our belief in that bias. Vicious cycles, such as these, in fact characterise many forms of functional (‘psychogenic’) illness and some forms of psychosis.

Hunger, homelessness, loneliness and chronic pain are all examples of situations and states that continually produce volatility (difficult-to-manage negative surprises). Sustained exposure to such volatile situations and environments—where the outcomes of actions appear inherently unpredictable—leads to an inevitable decrease in confidence in one’s ability to bring about the outcomes they expect. At that point, our predictive brains begin to infer an inability to exert successful control, and this then forms a damaging part of the model that guides our future actions.

Sometimes we see this in the simplest, most pulp fictioney form, like Indiana Jones’s crippling fear of snakes. We can be more subtle than that, but as authors of any genre of fiction, we have a responsibility to our characters to make them imperfect humans, whether they like it or not.

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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