(Also posted at One Bite at a Time.)

No one has control over their impulses; we can only manage our responses. The brave man is not the one with no fear. It’s the one who faces that fear and does what scares him, anyway. Our responses to base impulses define our character.

Writers get to have it both ways. How many of us have been less than pleased with how we handled a situation in our lives, then wrote a scene where a character does what we wish we had done originally? Maybe the fictional incident wasn’t originally intended as a do-over, but you recognized the potential as you worked on it.

The flip side is also true. Doing the right thing can be hard, draining, and initially unsatisfying. Sure, you’ll feel good later because you rose above your impulse, but it’s frustrating at the time because you really wanted to tell that asshole off! Let your characters serve this valuable and cathartic role for you. Not only are there no consequences to you, but his inappropriate or disproportionate response can add conflict to your story.

Example: My WIP has a subplot where a male cop has gone against regulations to help a couple of kids because he knows the regs will make a bad situation worse. He confides in a female cop, who has the exact opposite opinion, and has personal experience to back her up. New on the force, she goes to a superior to ask what she should do, not knowing the superior has it in for the male cop. The superior notifies Family Services, the kids are picked up, and the male cop finds himself in a difficult situation.

He accuses the woman of going to Family Services behind his back, and she comes clean. She only asked advice, didn’t know the superior would run with it, and then lays out the experience that caused her so much concern. The male cop listens, and sees she’s suffering. He imagines how hard this must have been for her, with what she’s seen, new here, not knowing who to trust. What he says is, “Don’t ever go behind my back again.”

This is, of course, absolutely the wrong thing to say, but he’s pissed. It also allows what could have been a dead end subplot to spin off its own little series of events that can carry through to another book, if I decide to make a series of this.

I strongly believe we should treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. Your characters? Resist the urge to exhibit their better natures. Hurt feelings are fodder for ideas we would not have thought of in a vacuum.

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Comment by Dana King on May 31, 2009 at 7:19am
Thanks for the comments.

I should have mentioned, the male and female cop are relatively new friends with potential to move past that. What he says is exactly the wrong thing from an interpersonal perspective, though he was probably right as a cop. It's a complicating issue that I hope can lend some depth to both characters.

John M, thanks for the reminder about Family Services. I hope to make the social worker sympathetic, and not blame the failure of the initial placement of these kids on the system so much as a bad situation with a specific foster parent, and the kids not mature emotionally mature enough to handle it well. (Though they're obviously mature enough in other ways to live on their own.) I'm trying to stay away from right/wrong perspectives here. No person or agency will be absolutely right, and none will be dead ass wrong. This should make for a better book, though I don't know what it will do for it sales potential.
Comment by I. J. Parker on May 30, 2009 at 8:24am
I like Dana's scene and I like what the cop says. You want him gruff because he's angry, and you also want him to feel guilty afterwards because he thinks he's been brutal. This depends a lot on their working relationship and his attitude toward women in general and her in particular.
I always have my protagonist act in some fashion that he later regrets. He has a tendency to be self-righteous, partially because he set an enormously high standard for himself. But this can lead to unintentional misjudgments and inflicting pain on others. And yes, it keeps the plot interesting.
Comment by John McFetridge on May 30, 2009 at 7:36am
It really doesn't matter how "women" want to be treated. It matters how this particular man and this particular woman interact. I think we need to see people as individuals. I don't want to be treated the way some spokesman for 50 year old white guys says. Though I admit, I have to deal with people's first imprssions of me based on what they've seen form other 50 year old white guys.

But back to the issue of characters. Yes, by all means, get them to do whatever you would be uncomfortable doing.

I would say in your example, though, "social services" often gets a bad rap it doesn't deserve and you might have to have a scene or something to show what's going on rather than rely on the stereotype view of "the system."

The basis of my first novel was the time I got arrested when I was 19 for being involved in the robbery of a department store. Twenty years later I started to wonder what would have happened to me if I'd gone to jail like the other guys involved who had previous convictions. For the character in my book it led to a life of crime. For me, not so much. But it was fun to "walk down that road," if only in my imagination.
Comment by John Dishon on May 30, 2009 at 5:55am
Absolutely the wrong thing to say? Like hell it is. He should have said a lot more than that. Here we have this cop taking charge of a situation she doesn't understand, acts without thinking about the consequences, and then expects sympathy because she's been through something similar even though she completely betrayed her fellow officer's, and I assume, friend's trust, which is bad enough, but especially given their profession, where being able to count on your co-workers is vital, and all this guy says in response is "Don't ever go behind my back again"?

I feel this guy is being sexist. Women want to be treated equally, right? Well, if the other cop was a guy, your main character would probably punch than no good backstabbing loose-lipped son of a bitch in the face. But no, since it's a woman, it just "Don't go behind my back again." Ugh.

Well, I would say to definitely keep that scene in your story because it's probably good; it certainly got me riled up.

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