What Won’t You Do?

Yesterday, we discussed characters’ absolute limitations—what they couldn’t do. But just because a character can do something doesn’t mean that she will. For every person, there is almost certainly something that person won’t do.

Why not?

A lot of the time, it’s cultural context. Often, people will grow up with certain behaviors and restrictions in their households. Some they’re instructed to follow; others they get from watching the rest of the family. Or the restriction might come from the people around them: good villagers don’t do this, members of this organization don’t do that, a lady would never dream of doing that other thing, and heaven forbid a goatherd ever—you get the idea. While some of these are more valid than others, a character might take any of them as blanket prohibitions.

Sometimes, it’s the law. Maybe the character wants to keep her reputation clean, or has already had trouble with the law and doesn’t want to invite more. An immigrant might be particularly careful to toe the line in a new country, or still follow the laws of her old one.

Other times, it’s trying to emulate or avoid identification with another character. One whose role model never lies might refuse to tell anything but the truth; another whose enemy is known for bullying people into following his orders might shy away from that sort of persuasion because it would make her like him.

Still others might be guided by personal experience, or by what they themselves wouldn’t want happening to them. These sorts of prohibitions most often have to do with interactions with other people; there have to be others to do unto, right?

Then there’s religion—or (less often) superstition. Those factors can bring out some very unlikely but interesting prohibitions. Moreover, people’s refusal to break them will often be quite intense; they know what happens if they don’t follow them. Many of these prohibitions have some sort of symbolic explanation: for instance, “Never stand completely in someone’s shadow” could be because doing so is tantamount to subsuming one’s self in someone else’s.

As with what characters can’t do, what characters won’t do is dramatically valuable. Double binds, moral dilemmas and general trickery exploiting such reservations can lead to tension and intense emotion. Moreover, a character’s attempts to hide, sidestep or otherwise work around what she won’t do will set her apart from other characters like her, as will attempts to explain her prohibitions. Besides, explanation is a challenge: have you ever thought about why you consider certain actions to be crossing the line?

Unlike what a character can’t do, what a character won’t do can be circumvented, and probably will. So it’s good to think about what kinds of things would push a character to break her own prohibitions. Can they be “disproven” to her? What sort of pressure—or what kind of reward—would cause her to slip? If she’s not going to break her prohibitions for her own sake, would she break them for someone else? For her family? Town? Country? World?

“Won’t” is a very useful word for the creation of intense characters. See what you can do with it.

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