You ever have characters that, no matter what you do, you can’t seem to find a decent conflict for them? Maybe they’re a major support that needs a subplot, maybe it’s a main character who wants nothing to do with the story being told, or maybe it’s a character that should have a bigger role in the story but nothing is working.
Enter, the Well of Nope. Also known as the giant list of things that your character never wants to do, be, or witness.
There’s a phrase that I keep in my head when I’m writing, especially when I’m planning a story: “Never name the well from which you will not drink.” Not only useful to remember for character development, but decent life advice as well. Never say never, as in, never say you’ll never do something. This can have unintended side effects. For instance, when I was in school I constantly told myself that I’d never be an author because I don’t tell good stories. Esper and the rest of the Five Realms happened. I also told myself I’d never be a good multiplayer gamer, because lots of information overwhelms me. Overwatch happened.
So, what would your characters “never?” This question actually goes deeper than one might think. As an example: a young man never wants to become like his father. Which begs two questions: What about the father does he hate, and what is the father actually like? Answering those not only gives insight into the boy’s psychology, but also provides a direction and potential for growth. Let’s say the boy dislikes his father because he ignores his son. That would, of course, be from the young man’s perspective and not the objective truth. The flip side to that is that the father is a hard worker and wants desperately for his son to have a better life than he did, so he throws himself into his work.
That would mean a potential path of growth for the young man might go something like this: The son has grown up and made a name for himself, but now he has a young apprentice. He keeps working, but when he realizes that he’s ignoring said apprentice, he faces one of his “never’s” from the Well of Nope. From there he can confront that issue while maintaining his hard work, eventually becoming very much like his father, but not just the negatives. The end point might be that once he’s made peace with the fact that he is his father’s son, he realizes he is better able to manage both his work and his apprentice. He ends up knowing when to work and when not to ignore, and resolves whatever conflict stemmed from the neglected apprentice.
Marcus, from The Redgate Chronicles, also has an example, and one that illustrates how the Well of Nope can also be used as a massive catalyst. Because of his appearance, he believes he’ll never find love. When that belief is proven false, it gives him both hope and an exploitable weakness. It leads to him both screwing up in the worst possible way, but also to him trying again. The massive screw up? Changes the world forever, and leads him toward encountering and subsequently dealing with even more of his never’s.
While single never’s can have far reaching consequences, there are usually multiple answers to this question. Esper has a long list of never’s that he confronts throughout his story. All of them are double-edged swords, bringing both complications and boons. See how many answers you can find to that question, and pull them apart to see how the result would affect the character, both negatively and positively. How many of those can you weave into the plot? How many would change its course entirely?
From which wells would your character never drink?
Think about it.
– E.J. Lowell