How To Avoid Making Your Story And Characters Feel Contrived

Do you want to know how to avoid contrivances in your story? Or are you perhaps worried that a scenario you're working on is somehow contrived? Do you have concerns that a character's actions are contrived in some way? If so, read on!

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So exactly what makes something feel contrived, anyway?

Contrived-feeling scenarios all have one thing in common: one way or another, they feel forced. Things happen and play out in a way that seems unnatural or discordant, or feels a little too easy or convenient. Here are some scenarios that might feel contrived, and why:

Scenario 1: A character whom the story tries to frame as a kind and benevolent ruler with years of political experience actually displays no real diplomatic ability at all, particularly where it would be useful or appropriate. This seems contrived because we know that either the character should be acting very differently, or should not be perceived as such a great and competent ruler unless everyone's been brainwashed or just doesn't know better.

Scenario 2: A character ends up completely broke after some unwise financial move or other, then goes and gets a loan from a shady business and ends up in a whole lot of hot water when repayment becomes impossible. At the very last minute, the character wins the lottery and can pay off the loan sharks. This can feel contrived because we all know that big problems usually just don't go away that easily.

Scenario 3: A character with no prior training or experience enters a contest against a dozen other people with a lifetime of training and experience. This character beats each and every one of them in turn. This can seem contrived because we know that while people can get really lucky sometimes, getting that lucky all of the time is a stretch.

Scenario 4: A character develops superpowers and decides to keep them a secret out of fear of what the others might do if they found out. But so far, everyone else has been extremely calm and collected around other people with superpowers and no one has done anything to harm them. Furthermore, this character hasn't really been exposed to anyone who gets particularly upset over that kind of thing, and does not have an established pattern of irrational fears about people. This can feel contrived because we know that the character's fears have no basis in anything - and if anything, the character has reasons to not be afraid.

Scenario 5: A planet inhabited by billions of people faces complete annihilation. Despite being very technologically advanced and despite knowing for decades that their planet faced catastrophic disaster, no one came up with any real solutions to save the planet or to escape to safety before its imminent destruction. This feels contrived because we know that A: people really want to survive and not die in terrible disasters, and B: with billions of people on this world, wouldn't at least some of their best and brightest scientists be working on this?

Scenario 6: A character's lover has been behaving horribly - this lover insulted and degraded the character in public, destroyed some of the character's personal belongings, and kicked the character's dog. Then the lover comes along with a bouquet of roses. All is instantly forgiven and everything is sunshine and smiles again. This feels contrived because we know that hurt feelings don't mend so easily and so soon, plus this character has good reason not to trust or feel safe around this lover again for quite some time, if ever.

So is something contrived simply because it's unlikely?

Simply put, no. The audience can understand that even though something isn't likely, that still doesn't make it impossible. As long as they don't have any reason to feel like it shouldn't happen, they're going to be fine. Three factors that can help with this are:

Even if it's not likely to happen very often (or even to happen again), it still feels like something that could happen. It's not statistically likely that someone is just going to stumble upon an ancient artifact buried in the back yard, but it's something that can and does actually happen to some people sometimes. Because of this, most people aren't too likely to balk at the occasional rare happenstance in fiction.

Even though what happened is statistically improbable on its own, it's clearly a probable conclusion of what just happened before. Sure, it's not usual for someone who is typically calm and collected to just lose it in public, but if we see this person slowly getting more and more stressed out over time, and if we see that the situation that sets off the breakdown contains elements that we know this character finds distressing, this unlikely event can still feel natural.

Even though what just happened isn't likely to happen to most people, it still had to happen to someone. The story just happens to follow the one person it did happen to. For example, if a curious alien decides to grant a human superpowers to make a scientific study out of what happens, then someone out of Earth's seven billion has to be picked.

More ways avoid writing scenarios or characters that feel contrived

Use coincidences and unlikely events sparingly. While we understand that events like these happen some of the time to some people, we also understand that they don't just happen to anybody all the time. The more your story relies on them, the less plausible it will be. So while you can get away with using maybe one big coincidence and a few smaller ones, you don't want to exceed that. (And if you can make your story work with even fewer, then all the better.)

Use coincidences and unlikely events to start plots, not resolve them. This kind of thing can be a great way to kick off a story, but it's a terrible way to wrap one up. Not only does it feel contrived, but people hoping to see how your characters would pull themselves out of this mess will feel ripped off.

If you use a coincidence or unlikely event to grant somebody's wish, don't grant it in an ideal way. For example, if being discovered by a talent scout helps your character realize a dream of becoming a famous star, make sure your character discovers that the lifestyle isn't all it's cracked up to be. Make things happen that give your character reason to have doubts and second thoughts. Make your character learn the hard way why the saying "be careful what you wish for" exists.

Don't let your unlikely and coincidental events repeat themselves more than is plausible. It's one thing if your one-in-several-million character eventually meets someone similar along the road, but for characters like this to start popping up in every town is absurd. (And remember, if the same sorts of rare events keep happening in your story, not only do things start looking contrived, but it also starts looking like you're running out of ideas.)

If other characters are involved in making your unlikely event happen, put yourself in their shoes for awhile. Does what they're doing actually make sense when you look at things from their end? Or is there something more efficient and less troublesome that they could be doing?

Know your characters' motives and morals inside and out. Core Drives: What They Are, And Why Your Characters Need Them can help you determine what all drives your characters to do what they do and Character Development Questions can help you work out your characters' moral and ethical codes. Whenever your characters do anything particularly drastic or dramatic, ask yourself: how do their actions align with their core drives and their personal codes of ethics? Do they fit with what you've decided, or do they fly completely in its face?

Ask yourself if your characters' behaviors are honestly authentic and plausible. Is that how anyone really acts when placed under these circumstances? Have you ever honestly heard anyone actually say that to someone? Is it possible that someone with as much skill or experience as your character supposedly has should most likely handle this situation a little better? Is this how people your character's age and in similar positions actually act and talk?

Make a regular habit of asking yourself what your characters are thinking and feeling. What's going on in their minds? What are their rationales? What are their emotions, and what happened that sparked these emotions? What are they thinking that's prompting them to say this or that, and what prompted these thoughts?

Also, you might be interested in:

"Is This A Good Idea For My Story/Setting/Character?" - How To Answer This For Yourself!
"How Can/Should I Do This Thing With My Story/Setting/Character?"
"Help! I'm Worried That My Idea Is Too Cliche!" - What To Do When This Happens
Simple Tips To Put Yourself In The Shoes Of Characters Who Aren't You
How To Build Up A Believable Romance

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