There a million stories, from real-life to fictional interpretations, of the act of sabotage. Breaking something on the sly. Little bits of rebellion or guerrilla warfare that add up – and those are great devices to use in any story. What we're turning the light on today, though, is the perverse art of internal sabotage.
Let's narrow the scope from an act of war behind enemy lines to acts of self-limitation.
Again, there are a million stories about this... unfolding every single day. People sabotage themselves, sometimes utterly accidentally, and sometimes... purposely but subconsciously. What do we mean by this? This where somebody does something specific – or doesn't do something they had to do – and it hurts their stated objective. Maybe they fell asleep without setting their work alarm. Maybe they let slip that one thing in conversation that should never be mentioned (to another particular person). Maybe they keep side-stepping that one task in a dance of procrastination until the music is over, whatever that means within the context.
"I'm gonna ask her out..." keeps getting pushed back until she marries someone else.
"I'm saving this for a special occasion..." until "this" was put on the shelf next to their picture at the wake.
Self-sabotage is a real-life thing we all face... and it is an amazing thing for a character to face as well. Adversity builds character, and what are our tools as writers but characters? By the way, if you're looking for external adversity, we did a blog post about that recently. Go check it out! Here, though, we're breaking down potential internal adversity.
This device can connect your readers, your audience, to a very real human story. Often, though, we don't think about self-sabotage as a discreet act that can be dropped into a narrative. It might be a character flaw, an isolated screw-up, or a dozen other angles where it manifests to impact the journey of the character.
The consequence might even spill over where one person's self-sabotage affects someone else. One character's social anxieties paralyzes them from stopping another character before they stepped over that Critical Threshold. Maybe somebody winds up marrying the "wrong person." Maybe they fall off a literal cliff. The possibilities are endless.
Once we isolate and name that sabotage – putting a handle on it – we can use it as writers to really fine-tune this aspect of the narrative journey. Is this a critical error or a character flaw? Do we have, or can we dare summon, our own instances of self-sabotage to infuse into the character?
Is the character going to triumphantly overcome this condition or tragically succumb to its limitation? Either way, what does that look like? Is it central to the plot, or only one thread in a broad tapestry? Think of yourself, your character, and your audience. Are you writing a cautionary tale or a heroic recovery? Or both?
Don't save self-sabotage for a special occasion: use it now!
...But in a healthy way.
How about you, writers? Have you considered this flaw, or others, in a clinical sort of approach for a character? How did it go? Which flaws did you sprinkle in? Share in the comments below...