I’m a nerd. A geek. Like, the old fashioned 1980s version that’s really uncool, as opposed to the hip 2010s version that apparently rules the world. And, despite being 37 years old and married, I still play with my funny shaped dice in a little game called Dungeons and Dragons. Usually about twice a month. More if my group and I can work it into our adult schedules.
That being said, if you’ll bear with me, I have a point to make. You may just have to overcome your nausea over my geekdom to get to it. Sorry. I do bathe though, so it shouldn’t be too bad. I’m not one of THOSE nerds.
A few weeks ago, we had a game where-in my character (kind of like a WoW avatar, only on paper) gets hit with a magical attack which means that I need to roll a saving throw, or the character is dead. Despite my awesome bonuses, I fail the roll and the character is pushing daisies. In gamer-nerd terms, that’s a “save or die” situation.
Save or die is much like the psychological phenomenon of the either/or fallacy though. The either/or fallacy occurs when an argument is made in which the choices involved are artificially restricted in what may be an otherwise flawless logical discussion of an issue. A large example that most would be familiar with is the pro-life/pro-choice debate. An individual doesn’t have to be on one side of the debate or another. They can choose to remain outside of the debate because they do not have an opinion. Another example, if you don’t care for that one (and I know a lot of people won’t) would be, “If you don’t know how to use a computer, you’re an idiot.” While this isn’t necessarily the case, it may be the opinion of the speaker. There were millions of incredibly intelligent people on the planet before the invention of the computer, and in fact people who have never seen a modern computer designed the first computers, so that argument is invalid. But, once again, it’s just as valid an opinion as any other. It just isn’t factually accurate.
How can we use this concept as it relates to our writing? There are two examples that I would like to address. The first is the possibility that, with the save-or-die mindset, we may create plot holes without realizing it. Secondly, how can we use intentional save-or-die statements to improve plot, characterization, and setting?
As we write, we often add details to our plots and characters that reflect an either/or situation or a character’s or culture’s save-or-die mindset. The problem that arises here is that we need to ensure consistency. For instance, in chapter 3, you write that your villain, Lugnar, is a bigot. His mindset is expressed as, “If you aren’t a minotaur, then you aren’t worthy of my notice.” What you’ve done by announcing this mentality is limit your choices later in the story. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though – UNLESS, you forget to maintain that limitation consistently. Later in the story, you introduce his lieutenant and most trusted advisor. Let’s call him Crud. Crud happens to be a Centaur. What does this do to the reader? It distracts him with the question/comment: But I thought he didn’t respect anyone who wasn’t a minotaur? How did this centaur get to be his “right hand man?
There are a few ways to work with this scenario. You can take the easiest path and – *POOF* – Crud is suddenly a minotaur instead of a centaur. The second option is to go back in the story to your fallacy and alter it. Maybe Lugnar is fiercely loyal to his tribe rather than a minotaur-supremacist, or perhaps it’s only dwarves that are beneath his notice. Or – you can simply throw the save-or-die thinking out the window. Make sure though that you review the story to look for inconsistencies any of these changes would cause. Make sure you don’t fix one problem to create a domino effect that might bring your whole story tumbling to the ground.
The next fix is perhaps the better one, if done correctly. This is where we get to the second question I expressed earlier: How can we use intentional save-or-die statements to improve plot, characterization, and setting?
In our example with Crud being the misshapen bung in our plot hole (keep the double entendre to yourself, thank you very much), how can we BUILD on the initial limitation to make it a plot point instead? With this particular issue, we can institute an exception to the save-or-die logic by giving Lugnar and Crud a backstory that enhances the plot, broadens characterization, and provide more setting information. For the plot, we can add a backstory for the pair. Both were enslaved in the same arena as gladiators. Crud was able to defeat Lugnar in a match, but refused to kill an unarmed slave, thus saving Lugnar’s life and earning respect concurrently. – OR – Perhaps Lugnar was separated from his family as a child, and Crud looked out for him during his time as an orphan. (This is pretty cliché though. Anyone else having a slight flashback to Star Trek: Nemesis?) Perhaps there is a cultural issue at hand here where-in Crud is considered, by minotaur tradition, to be a centaur. He earned his place amongst them by fighting at their side in battle. Still another option is that Lugnar saved Crud’s life, and Crud is fulfilling a life-debt. Perhaps, and hopefully, his real name isn’t Crud even. Maybe he’s only biding his time until his life-debt is fulfilled before killing Lugnar in an ironic plot twist at the end?
The point is, there are always fixes for these situations. Some take more work than others, and some could damage the story if not executed well. Regardless, the key is to realize when we’ve set ourselves into these situations and find a creative way to use them to our advantage rather than letting them be the save-or-die element in our stories’ successes.
As far as the initial situation with my character getting turned to stone: The dungeon master fixed that. In his setting, getting turned to stone is only an inconvenience for a dwarf. Dwarves choose to turn to stone when they are tired of living, and if they haven’t made that choice, they can reanimate their shell and turn it to flesh again. So, Mordin is still going about saving the world and doing clerical work, but he’s got a bit more respect for beholders.