This post will contain squids!
What if I told you to expect a super-awesome post tomorrow on a really cool topic? All well and good– but what if I didn’t actually post that day? What if I didn’t even apologize? If I were my audience, I’d bug me until I posted the super-awesome post. And if I found out that the post didn’t even exist and I was making an empty promise for fun, I’d be pretty upset.
This is called breaking promises, and it’s a very powerful technique… when intentional. When you break promises by mistake, it’s horrible, and yet both instances have the same outcome.
The guaranteed outcome is hate. No one likes an oathbreaker. Even if someone is generally well-liked, they quickly spiral into the dirty gutter of disdain once they break their first promise. This is how we separate our villains from our heroes. Although the hero makes a deal with the traitor and keeps it, the villain makes the same sort of deal with the traitor and leaves him at the bottom of the snail pit begging for the promised salt shaker. We hate the villains and love the heroes, all because of how much their oath means to them.
This is a surefire way to make someone despised. Need a character to go from love interest to despised traitor? Unapologetically break a promise. Need a character with a stained reputation to gain nobility and heroism in one fell swoop? Have them keep a promise.
Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick does this extremely well. The protagonist is an information seller in the thieving underworld, surrounded by assassinations, hooliganism, and generally illegal behavior. Through all this, the protagonist remains untouched by the stereotype that all thieves are horrible (which is of course untrue, but it is still a stereotype). By stressing the character’s sense of honor, the author painted a trustworthy hero in the midst of villains.
Similarly, the army of the dead from The Return of the King turn from promise-breakers to promise-keepers. At the beginning, we feel like we can’t trust them because they don’t keep promises. By the end, however, they’ve finally redeemed themselves. But having characters break a promise then keep a later one only equalizes their trustworthiness– it does not create nobility where there was none. I’ll do a post on redeeming “bad” characters soon, I promise.
Making your characters break or keep promises is a very useful tool for character development. However, that isn’t the only thing it does.
Breaking and keeping promises as a writer does the same thing. Keeping promises is assumed– any promise you make should be kept, according to the readers. Any promise you break is a pile of readers lost.
Promises you might make: to explain a certain concept, to describe a certain character, to give this interesting character a big part of the story. I’ve heard this described as the gorilla in the phone booth. If your character is walking down the street and sees a gorilla in a phone booth, but they don’t give it a second thought, that’s a promise broken. By mentioning the gorilla, you promised to explain why it’s in a phone booth. It might seem like a hilarious joke at the time, but your readers are going to get upset. Similarly, if you mention a concept at the beginning of the book and don’t explain it by the end, that’s a promise broken. Sometimes, the only thing that keeps a reader going through the book is the promise of something explained later on. If you break that promise, you lost huge respect.
This topic is two-faceted. You can use this fact to great effect with other people– don’t use it on yourself.
Squids! There, this post contains squids.