The Curse of the Plot Monkeys

The term “archetype” has been adopted by agents, editors and reviewers to describe an underdeveloped character who acts solely according to the needs of the plot and not out of their own needs, fears and conflicts.

In other words, they’re plot monkeys.

One of the difficult things with plotting — other than the actual plotting — is figuring out reasonable reasons for why your character does something that advances the plot. For example, your character has to be kidnapped. To do so, he needs to open his door to a stranger without looking through the peephole. Why would he do this? The risk in making your main character do stuff just to tick off a plot point makes that character seem stupid or inconsistent. They become hard to like.

I just read a book where a woman character, who had just ended a relationship with the villain, had stopped his taking his calls. This was a reasonable reaction for a woman in her situation. Twenty-five pages later, though, the plot requires that the villain get important information, and find out where she is. Therefore, for no other reason, she not only starts taking his calls again, but blathers on and drops all kinds of hints and clues, spilling the beans at every opportunity.

Boom! She is instantly demoted to plot monkey status.

The main character in the project I’m working on free-wheels her way toward plot monkey status on a regular basis. I’ve set her up as someone dealing with the aftermath of trauma, which affects her decision-making, but that can’t be the excuse for every action she takes in the story. And she’s supposed to be pretty smart and very perceptive.

I really have to step back and ask myself several questions about nearly every scene:

–What does she want from the scene?
–What does she fear might go wrong in the scene?
–Is there information she doesn’t have, that would change the outcome of the scene, if she knew it?
Why doesn’t she have that info?

I don’t want to turn a secondary character into a plot monkey by having them say something like, “Oh, damn, I forgot to mention that once you get past the security system there are the five attack dogs.” There should be some plausible reason she doesn’t know things.

Here’s an example of a character who was no one’s monkey, who took an action that had catastrophic consequences; Nieska in Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. Nieska has been sent to the tower of the local wizard to act as his companion. Against her will, the wizard has begun to train her in magic. When her home village is menaced, Nieska grabs a vial of potion she thinks will help. She risks her own life, and demonstrates courage, intuition and smarts to save the village, which she does. Unfortunately, she uses up all the potion doing so. Only then does she discover that the potion is rare and the vial she used up took 12 years to distill. Now there is none left and the enemy is regrouping.

Nieska is not stupid. She is impulsive but not terribly so. She is unlearned. Her ignorance and her education are a theme of the book. I didn’t roll my eyes when she used all the potion. I would have too.

Ignorance will only take a character so far, though, because after a while the reader starts to wonder why the character isn’t stopping to ask some basic questions.

In The Family Plot, by Cherie Priest, a salvage crew camps out in a seriously haunted house. After the first one or two incidents, you might start to wonder why the don’t just spring for a motel. Priest has prepared us for that; this is a desperate last-ditch job for the company, and the owner ran up all the credit cards to pay for it. Camping in the house is free; things are going to have to get very bad before this group pays for a room. And when things get very bad, they do change their plans. It’s just too late.

Plot monkey risk lurks everywhere. My personal clue that I’m demoting my characters comes when I’m saying to myself, “Where Character X has to leave her car unlocked so the villain can plant a hex pouch in it.*” Help! Character X is teetering on plot monkey status!

Why would Character X leave her car unlocked?

–She’s carrying in a lot of groceries?
–She’s emotionally distracted?
–She’s helping a friend who is using crutches?

It’s probably going to be the friend on crutches, and maybe the friend on crutches got injured when a previous attack by the villain ricocheted onto them. Then Character X might be feeling guilty. She rushes up to their door, and after all, it’ll only be a few minutes.

Your character could be a plot monkey if he is listening in on the gangsters, who are speaking Russian, on page 265, and he understands them perfectly even though there’s never been a word about him knowing Russian before then. You will make his monkeyhood worse if he says something like, “Oh, didn’t I mention that I speak Russian?”

She may be a plot monkey if a belief she hold to adamantly completely changes seventy pages later with no experiential or informational changes. On the other hand, if she appears to abandon her adamantly-held belief as soon as she finds out that her ex or her mother agrees with her, she may not be a plot money. She may just be shallow — or a brilliantly crafted character to whom we can all relate.

Think through your character’s needs and reasons. Motivations don’t have to be “logical,” just plausible. They must seem to be acting on their own, not driven in a forced march by an abstract plot outline.

*no hex pouches were used, or harmed, in the writing of this column.


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One Response to The Curse of the Plot Monkeys

  1. Chad Hull says:

    Hmmm…. I’ve never thought to think this way about characters. Very, very interesting.

    Maybe I should read Uprooted again and see if this changes my perception on the main character.

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