WWYD (“What would you do?”) is a common question in writing groups. It happens when an author reaches an impasse in the story for the character’s actions. So often it comes across like a popularity contest: I’ll have the character do whatever most of them say they’ll do, and that will make my story popular. This is also a variation of the “what’s your favorite trope?” question.
However, if you truly want to write character-driven fiction where the characters do things that get them in and out of trouble, you need to look, not to outsiders, but to the INSIDE of the character(s). Ask what would your character do. The answer to all character actions is to look into their motivations. What makes them who they are, their past, their history, their family, their education, their interests, their hobbies, their circumstances, their alignment (think D&D alignments: neutral chaotic, etc). These things dictate what they will choose to do, or what will catch their attention in a setting, and make them turn a corner, enter a store, witness a crime, and do any and every little thing throughout their day.
Ask: What MOTIVATES them?
Unless you can give these other people you’re surveying for ideas every aspect of your character’s history, you’ll get a response that is fitting for them, but it will likely not be fitting for your character. Go back to your character charts and notes and look there for your ideas.
If you really can’t figure it out from your own notes, then work one on one with just one writing buddy or a developmental editor. Bring all your notes and maybe they can see a motivation opportunity you’re not.
How does the uptown girl meet the downtown boy?
Ripping a situation from song lyrics, let’s say, you want the woman just dumped by her boyfriend to meet the mechanic (who will become her new LI) at the shop across from the diner where she sits alone eating lunch. Catch her attention. Here are some options:
- Create movement and/or noise. Most people can’t help but search out “what’s that?”
Have the mechanic moving a car onto his lift, or he tests a car engine and it backfires.
- Follow an interest.
If she enjoys fancy cars, or was a childhood tomboy helping her dad with his cars, seeing what the mechanic is doing is going to be of interest to her. And if she happens to notice he’s quite good looking? Yep. Gotcha.
- Draw them into a situation together.
Pull them together as onlookers, or even good samaritans who get involved when there’s a crash right outside in the street.
- Do all of the above.
Note, this does not mean you’re writing the mechanic is “making a play” for her, or that he even noticed – until she walks up to him – that she was there at all. You’re just playing god for a moment, dropping a pan so they both look up startled at the sound, and see each other across the way.
Bottom line, what characters do will only fit the story if it fits the character motivations as you have created them. So get to probing, not your writer friends’ brains, but your character chart.
Once they’ve met, you dive into their backstories to mine for what will make them connect emotionally and physically – as well as all the incompatible things that will provide friction, because Shakespeare was absolutely right: “the course of true love never did run smooth.” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act I, Scene 1).