A to Z Challenge 2013

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Writerly Wednesdays - Consequences

There should always be consequences for our characters' choices. There's a movie I love to hate that really illustrates what happens when we DON'T keep this in mind.

The movie The Family Man (starring Nicholas Cage) is a tragic example of characters lacking consequences. Allow me to explain. Cage plays a single, rich, successful president of a huge corporation. He's insanely rich. An angel (played by Don Cheadle) decides to give Cage a glimpse into how his life would have been different had he made different choices, and Cage wakes up the next morning with a wife and kids. The wife is his old girlfriend from college, whom (in his real life) he didn't stay with because he was pursuing his career. The resulting scenes while he is in this glimpse are actually hilarious and fun.

The ending is where the story fails however. Cage wakes up from his experience back in his old luxury apartment, rich once more. He rushes off to get in touch with his old girlfriend and (after a dramatic speech) they are together again.

The problem with this ending is that he is still rich, his girlfriend is a rich lawyer, and all the choices that brought them (and kept them) together as a family during the glimpse don't exist. They are able to ride off in the sunset and have an even better life together. There are no consequences though, because they are able to have their cake and eat it too. They've attained success in their various careers, and it is assumed that now their marriage (after the end of the movie) will also be successful, full of romance, etc. Every bit of the movie that made it entertaining up to this point has just been completely invalidated.

To take this discussion into the realm of writing, if we make the same mistake in our own story, we will invalidate our own characters and maybe even infuriate our reader. Consequences are a necessary part of writing. Every choice we make in our lives has a consequence. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad. Our characters have to be exposed to this as well - even if they are unaware of the consequences or blatantly ignore them. This is a reality of life, and including it in our stories keeps the writing honest and authentic.

If we're writing a murder mystery for example, there has to be a consequence for the killings. If our MC chooses to marry Beth instead of Susie, there should be something given up (or lost out on) as well as something they attain. Becoming a bricklayer instead of a politician for example, means a difference in salary and social echelon. All of these are consequences our MC must experience and face up to if we want our writing to resonate with truth.

What are you thoughts on consequences in writing? Do you consider them as you create your characters?

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Anonymous said...

Very nice article my friend. Yes there is and will always be consequences in life and that holds true for writing as well. Of course we want the hero to get the girl and save the day but if the choices he makes points in a different direction then, as an author, you either have to make a change or stay the course. I think readers want a good story that is ground in realism and that realism starts right here with decisions and consequences.

Elana Johnson said...

I totally think consequences should be authentic and true-to-life in all fiction. Otherwise, it's unbelievable. So yes!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You're right. A few people skate by in life, but most of us get ours when we make a mistake.

Icy Roses said...

This is a great point. Sometimes we forget to put in consequences for our characters' actions, and sometimes we just don't want to.

Sidenote: The town from which I hail (not the town where I go to college) is also on the list of funniest American town names along with Truth and Consequences. :)

Michelle H. said...

I try to be fully aware of the consequences, shaping the story around the possibilities and outcomes.

Galen Kindley--Author said...

Well, I sure do believe in consequences in "real life." But to be honest, I never consciously thought about them as I wrote. Now, I will. Were you a writing instructor in another life???

Best Wishes, Galen.

elizabeth mueller said...

I agree with Elana there. If I don't keep the consequences honest, the story feels fake. Unbelievable. No one would want to read it because it would feel fake and hollow.

Great post!! :D