Two Alternatives to “I Am a Plot Device”

When I did my rant on plot device characters, Michael pointed out that there were alternatives to being a passive plot device, mostly having to do with one character wanting to use another as said plot device and the second character having none of it. Yes, yes there are, and most of those sorts of plots I love to bits; what matters is the agency of the character being stuck in the middle of them. What’s out there?

My favorite sorts of plots are the ones in which Character B actively opposes against the character trying to control her. Again, I can reference Welsh myth, this time with Branwen’s much more awesome counterpart Rhiannon. There she is, at her marriage feast with her new husband Pwyll (to whom she’d proposed, mind you), and another man (whom she recognizes as the guy she wanted very much not to be betrothed to, not that Pwyll’s aware) asks Pwyll for a favor. Pwyll responds “Whatever you ask of me, as far as I am able to get it, you shall have it” (Rhiannon, knowing exactly where this is going, does the period equivalent of a facepalm), and the new guy, Gwawl, asks for Rhiannon and for the wedding feast. Pwyll, of course, is shocked speechless. Now, at this point Branwen would just have sighed and gone along with it, but Rhiannon tells Pwyll he’s an idiot, then tells him the period equivalent of “All right, buddy, I’ll play along, and if you do exactly what I say we’ll get out of this cleanly.” And the plan works perfectly. Passivity is no fun, but threat followed by active resistance: that’s drama, and usually good drama. And I’ll admit I prefer the subtle sort of resistance, like Rhiannon’s gambit, to getting up and fighting back; I’ve always valued cunning more than strength.

But not every character is as quick-witted as Rhiannon, or has access to the same resources, or has such an advantage in intelligence over her enemy, so sometimes there is nothing that she can do. But again, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do this. The wrong way, where the character just silently goes along with it for reasons that we can’t necessarily explain, gets us more “I am a plot device, pay me no mind.” On the other hand, if it’s shown why the afflicted character doesn’t have a choice, if it’s clear how much is arrayed against her and why she isn’t the one who can do anything about it, it’s not near as galling when she doesn’t do anything about it. Even better, though not always feasible, is when she’s making it very clear to all concerned that she does indeed have a problem with this, not taking the blame for everything that goes wrong from here on out—so she might be snarking about the situation, swearing vengeance on the person who’s getting her into this mess, doing little things that may not be successful but at least show she’s trying, or resigned to this particular situation but sabotaging the opponent in other ways.

In sum, one character just making another into a plot device without the second doing anything is annoying, but one character trying to make another into a plot device and the other reacting is drama. Play it well, and instead of growing to hate the passive plot device characters, your audience will identify with, root for, or in the case of PCs be more interested in helping the character who tries (even if she fails) to keep control of her life.

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