Last night I was watching Harry Potter: Goblet of Fire with my daughter and I remembered that it was the first book in the series where I felt JK Rowling was starting to manipulate her characters. It wasn’t only that Harry was starting to do things that seemed unnatural, even for a prodigy wizard, the supporting characters were as well. Arguments between characters seemed as forced as their resolutions. Admittedly, JK Rowling had problems that many of us wish we had–a huge fan base making predictions, writing fan fiction, having discussions on communities based solely on the Harry Potter series. She did the same thing many of us do, even with the shortest of stories: She manipulated her characters.
Many times we feel we have to outsmart our readers and that drives us to have our characters to do things which do not come naturally. It is just as noticeable to readers in short fiction as it is in a series. But how do you get a character to do what you want without manipulating them? You do what any good Dungeon Master does, you manipulate the scene.
Lewis Carroll in his story: Alice in Wonderland, shows us exactly how to do this (especially in a fantasy setting). Alice is too big to fit through a small door, but she doesn’t find that she is suddenly small, or that she has magic powers she never knew about, she finds instead a small item on a table she hadn’t noticed before. Manipulating the setting here is barely even noticed, though the items arrive magically, suddenly and are as convenient as a Red Shirt in a Star Trek episode. When the item does not produce the desired effect in the story, Carroll introduces another one. Each item, character and setting pushes Alice down the road of the plot without changing who she is. She may get bigger or smaller, but she is still Alice.
There is a natural desire to follow a good character, but if the author starts to change him in ways that are obvious: sudden skills, a new background/story complication, changes in behavior/emotion, a reaction that is atypical, a reader feels as manipulated as the character.
Writers should be careful not to throw too many obstacles at the protagonist. If you find you are, it is a pretty clear indication that the situation isn’t being handled well by your character. My advice is simple in these situations: Don’t be afraid to re-write, and don’t try to outsmart your reader. Being clever doesn’t get you published, telling a story well does.