(Mild spoilers alert) One of the most annoying things about an otherwise enjoyable story is the character who makes unaccountably dumb decisions that are clearly against their own interest (and aren’t helping anyone else). The classic example is the teenager creeping round the house haunted by the ghost of a serial killer. The teen hears manic laughter coming from the cellar. Then the lights go out and the teen’s first instinct is to light a candle and go down the rickety cellar stairs to investigate…
Really? Would you do that? Would anyone? I’d wager that the vast majority of people would run a mile in that situation. Before the cackling had stopped they’d be halfway to the next town. Scenes like these spoil a story because they either don’t show the character acting in a realistic or believable way, or reveal that the character is a colossal dimwit who does not deserve our sympathy. Indeed characters like this can be so annoying we sometimes root against them rather than for them.
For a character to do something, unpleasant, stressful, dangerous or foolhardy, and for us to believe that’s what they would have done we need to limit their choices, cut off every alternative avenue they could have taken, funnel them into a situation where the ‘nasty’ option is the only one they have left. An excellent example of funnelling is seen in the Squid Game, you’ve no-doubt heard of it. Here the main character Seong Gi-Hun is presented to us as a loser living with his mother. He’s made some poor life choices that have resulted in his wife divorcing him to marry another man, taking his young daughter in the process.
Seong’s main failing appears to be a gambling addiction that has left him broke and deeply in debt to some vicious gangsters who are going to force him to sell organs to repay what he owes. When Seong is approached by a representative from the Squid Game he’s told that competing could make him rich, but the whole thing sounds so bizarre that Seong understandably refuses the offer. Things change however when he finds out that his ex-wife’s new husband is taking the family to the USA. Seong’s elderly mother is terrified that her granddaughter will forget them and begs her son to find the resources that will convince a court that his daughter should stay with him. This is the breaking point for Seong and he agrees to take part in the Squid Game, the prospect still sounds weird to him, but he’s not yet aware of how dangerous an enterprise he’s undertaking, so we can understand why he agrees.
Unfortunately for Seong he very soon discovers the very considerable risks of playing the Squid Game. However, he’s given a chance to back out, which he does; but he’s also given the opportunity to return if he chooses. But why would he? The game is insane. Except he does choose to return and the ‘why’ is the fate of his mother. She’s been diagnosed with diabetes and her blackened feet are likely to need amputating very soon unless she can be treated. The last Seong sees of his mother is when he finds her hobbling out of the hospital heading for home. She points out that she does not have the money to pay the hospital and neither does her useless son, so what choice does she have? This is Seong’s second breaking point and even knowing what we do about the Squid Game we understand why he goes back. What choice does he have?
We see a similar funnel applied to another character in the show. This is Cho Sang-Woo the childhood friend of Seong. Cho is not a loser, he’s a respected stockbroker who has always been a high achiever expected to do great things with his life (a stark contrast to the hapless Seong). Unfortunately for Cho his stock dealings have left him billions in debt and he stands to lose everything, including the home and business of his mother which he mortgaged without telling her. His funnel is made clear: unless he repays his debt he will go to jail and his family will become destitute. More than that he will be exposed as a criminally reckless huckster, his shining reputation tarnished for ever. Cho’s honour and self-identity are at stake and he’s prepared to do anything to restore his good name. Like Seong we believe it when Cho chooses to re-enter the game, it’s his only chance of winning the fabulous amount of money he needs to clear his debts.
When writing your story make sure your characters are motivated in everything they do. The more difficult, dangerous or unusual their actions, the more pressure we need to have applied to them to make their actions believable. Whittle away their options. Make their life a funnel that leads them to one unavoidable destination.
See The Writers' Guide for more on writing Characters.