Q&A

How Do I Keep the Authorities Out of My Plot?

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Hello Mythcreants.

Writing stories I’ve found myself having a hard time preventing my characters from having access to outside help who would solve their problems for them far too easily (cops, armed forces, figures of authorities, or just reveling everything outright to the people…), especially in modern and futuristic settings (damn you WiFi and cellphones!).

Do you have any tips or general guidelines to help me make my character’s lives a lot more complicated?

Thanks in an advance.

-Thomas

Hey Thomas, thanks for writing in!

This is something that writers struggle with constantly, even the pros. How do you make sure your characters are the one who have to solve the problem, instead of just handing it over to someone else? I’ve already written a post about how cellphones and other tech can apply to RPGs, but let’s see if we can brainstorm something for prose.

When it comes to authority figures stepping in, there are two places to address this: in worldbuilding, or in plotting.

If you decide to address the issue in worldbuilding, then you’ll construct a setting that either doesn’t have a lot of central authority, or that central authority is antagonistic. Basically, either Mad Max or Star Wars. If your world is a bunch of isolated villages, then there’s no greater authority who can sweep in to save the day. Or if your setting has an evil king, then no one will appeal to him because he’s evil and wouldn’t help anyway!

These states can always be limited to parts of your world, depending on the kind of setting you need. Maybe most of the galaxy is well governed, but the frontier planets where your story takes place are fairly lawless.

Of course, if your story is set in the modern day, that ties your hands a bit on the worldbuilding. There are certainly arguments to be made about how benevolent our real-life authorities are, but that may not be something you’re ready to dive into. So unless your story takes place in a magical world behind a masquerade, the modern day mostly rules this option out.

If you decide to address the issue in plotting, then you’ll need to create exceptional situations. Sure, in most cases the police would solve this serial-killer problem, but they can’t because the killer is a cyborg and only your hero has anti-cyborg training. Or maybe the villain is a corrupt politician with the local authorities in their pocket. You can even have a story take place in such a short time frame that calling the authorities isn’t really feasible.

The other option is for your characters to be the authority themselves. You can’t ask the king for help if you are the king. This works pretty well, but it also limits the kind of stories you can have. Leaders make great characters in grand political dramas, less so in gritty murder-investigation stories.

As for modern tech like mobile phones, that’s a tricky problem too. You can always create situations where the tech doesn’t work, like signal dead-zones and the like, but if you do that too often, it’ll start to feel contrived. My go-to solution is to craft plots where such tech isn’t that useful, either because there’s no relevant info online or because it’s hidden in a sea of junk.

Of course, if you’re referring to people using their phones to snap picks of the supernatural, thus breaking the masquerade, that’s a whole other can of worms. For that, I recommend two posts by Chris:

Hope that answers your questions!

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    Another way I could think of is that your characters have other reasons to avoid the authorities (criminals or illegal immigrants for instance) and need to solve the problem on their own. In that case, they would hide the bodies instead of calling the police, and start their own investigation. Or there would be some kind of mercenary diplomat who would be the in-between between two fighting factions.

    I’m currently working on a novel where my main character is trying to find out who has attacked several drug lords. She clearly can’t go and see the authorities (and is, to a degree, ‘authority’ as well, due to her own past in the criminal world) and has to solve the problem herself.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah that would be a version of making the authorities antagonistic, though not the main bad guys in this case. It’s a solid way to go.

      • Cay Reet

        They’re not even antagonistic as a such, they’re never informed and never come into it. In the case of my novel, Jane and her former boss are called in, because they used to be high up the hierarchy in the underworld until they left it, leaving a certain chaos behind. They act as authorities, but they aren’t authorities in the way it would normally be understood.

  2. Brandon Harbeke

    One way this has been done in Lock Every Door was to have the characters on the margins of society with no tangible proof of anything they were investigating. They tried going to the police but were basically laughed out of the building.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That’s another version of the authorities being antagonistic, though not the main villains in this case, and it works great.

      • Richard

        It’s a standard B-Movie trope where the local sheriff / police doesn’t believe the kids with their story of the alien menace taking over.

        Sometimes it’s because the local authorities have already been “taken over”, other times it’s because they just don’t have any convincing evidence.

        A decent example of the latter is in The Blob (the original). The two police officers are generally sympathetic, but wasn’t the town doctor leaving that night for an out-of-town conference? And you’re really going to ask us to go looking for a bum who lives in a shack out in the woods somewhere just because something *might* have happened to him?

  3. Oren Ashkenazi

    For anyone who’s interested, this Q&A is oddly timed in that since answering it, I wrote a more detailed article on the subject, which will be out in a few weeks.

  4. Brigitta M.

    As far as finding info online the stuff needed early on in the story are great to find here: the name of the ghost, blueprints of the building which reveal a hidden room, previous residents of the house…that sort of thing. But once the characters start digging into how to solve a curse or whatever paranormal element, that’s when it gets into a muddled mess and the best they can come up with is a long-dead expert who may have been able to help them.

    As far as authorities go…there’s another potential route not quite covered here. They consider the case closed and solved but the MC doesn’t agree with their answer so MC decide to come up with evidence which proves their theory and this kind of thing can easily lead to MC getting in over their head.

    But it’s one that a writer has to be careful with because it’s one thing to track down evidence, yet another to break into a killer’s home to find it. There is desperate and then there’s stupid.

    –Bri

  5. Dinwar

    One thing to remember is that the modern world is astonishingly fragile. Cities have, at best, a 3 day supply of food, to give one example. Another is that most of the communication and information technology we have today is electronic. Cut power, or cut your protagonists off from electronic devices (say, because they can be tracked by the bad guys via cell phone or computer logins), and you create a tremendous number of problems for any modern or near-future hero.

    Cutting them off from power doesn’t even have to be done by the antagonists. Weather is your friend here. Hurricanes and wild fires are notorious for creating situations where authorities cannot be reached, and cannot reach people to help them. This would have the added bonus of creating tension (the antagonists are on a deadline, because the authorities WILL eventually show up) and allowing you to create hurdles without seeming unrealistic (a road they need to go down is on fire; trees block the road; the house they need to inspect is badly damaged). This sort of thing is used extensively in nautical fiction, as weather is usually more of a risk than enemy fire.

    If you think that’s too cliché, as I said, you can always come up with a way to prevent your protagonists specifically from accessing electronic communications. This means they can only contact the authorities directly, which may not be an option (most people don’t know where the nearest police station is).

  6. GeniusLemur

    Another possibility is to have a situation that’s moving too fast for the authorities to catch up. Yeah, the cops are on the way, but they can’t get a SWAT team this far out in the country for thirty minutes, and unless someone acts right now, the hostages will be killed/bomb will go off/aliens will break free/etc. So the hero has to go in alone.

  7. Erynus

    In my setting, my MC and actually everyone are spies, so there is no “authority” to call upon. In that setting, cops are useful but not too much, because they don’t have the info that the MC needs. Also, anyone that the MC contacts can be an ally or a foe, so even having an unlimited mean of communication, he wouldn’t use it.
    On the other hand he and his team does communicate pretty often by radio, unless they are deep into enemy territory, which is another way to limit their comms.
    If your MC is being surveyed by the antagonist, maybe he could but won’t use a phone. And nowadays there are not public phones anymore…

  8. LeeEsq

    Like other people mentioned, the common ways around this are some sort of antagonistic or helpless/useless authority figures over their head. While these work, and have a lot of bearing in reality, they don’t work all the time. Countries with a modern administrative apparatus, regardless of whether they are liberal democracies or various shades of authoritarianism, tend to have a very dim view of adventurism going on within in it or people taking the law into their own hands.

    Yes, the cops might be over their heads with an evil pyromaniac fire mage walking around but that doesn’t mean they, or anybody else in government, is going to be that keen with a bunch of teenage or early twenty-somethings dealing with the problem themselves even if they are better able to because they took an Ice Magic online course. Force being a monopoly of the state is something that nearly every government takes seriously. In fact, more liberal states take this a lot more seriously than right-leaning states. Compare how self-defense gets treated in Europe than it does in the United States. There is much less willingness to allow citizens to commit violence in the former in cases that would be seen as clear self-defense in the United States.

  9. LeeEsq

    Terry Pratchett’s solution to this problem, despite Discworld being a place where adventurism might be more tolerated than the real world, was to have the law enforcement authorities directly involved in stopping evil. At least that was his Guard’s sub-novels solution.

    • Dinwar

      He subverted that too, though. In several novels he mentions that there are other groups (witches, for example) that handle problems the Watch can’t, or won’t. In the last Tiffany Aching novel for example the coppers act, if not as antagonists, at least as obstacles–when you’re a Nac Mac Feegle you can’t go to the cops for help, and coppers have no jurisdiction over supernatural threats. Similarly, in “Making Money” and “Going Postal” the Watch is often as much a hindrance as a help to the main character (makes sense in context).

  10. Rose Embolism

    Honestly, if you want a start on the police or other authorities ignoring your characters’ problems in America, you can start by having your characters not be white males. I mean for a start consider the woman who’s been severely harassed online by an organized, very public group for years now, and the authorities’ response has been “ehh” (If you have to ask “which one?”, well, there’s my point). Being online doesn’t help.

    Other than that, it really depends on the specific situation. “No help available” situations can range from. “My ex is acting weird” to “I’m being threatened online”, to “I think my brother’s been kidnapped by goblins.”

    Also, as far as using cell phones to snap pictures or video of supernatural events thereby breaking the Masquerade, well, just go online. You can find tons of photos and videos of “real life vampires/werewolves/whatever” and for some reason they only occasionally make the MSM. Mostly they end up in pages like “Eerie New Jersey” or Pintrest.

  11. Adam Reynolds

    I think the worse version of this problem is when the characters are themselves authority figures who fail to properly use the resources that make real authority figures effective. As an example, the thing that allows real life police officers to almost always win fights is their ability to call for extremely reliable backup and legally escalate(at least in theory). Likewise even elite military units are teams for a reason, and one of the key things that makes them so effective is that they can quickly and easily call upon greater support like air strikes or a ride out of trouble.

    There are two solutions I can think of. The first is that of a lack of resourcing being a problem in the world, because the threats are numerous enough that just throwing resources at every single problem is not an option. In strategy this is known as the concept of flexibility vs efficiency, with a good example being a sports team with no backup players. This generally requires that the heroic organization has less power than the groups they are fighting.

    The second solution is that of timing, that while backup is available, it is not always available quickly enough to matter. This only works when the threat is not known, and requires that the heroes did not plan for it. Which is often realistic, but it can also make the heroes look foolish if they fail to plan for what appear to be reasonable contingencies to the audience.

    • Dinwar

      The idea of available backup works in cities and densely-populated areas. In rural areas, it doesn’t work so well.

      Sure, the police can call for backup from other towns (in fire fighting it’s called mutual aid, and departments negotiate agreements to provide it with each other), but whether it comes or not is uncertain. First, each police force obviously focuses on its town–if there’s a problem in my jurisdiction I’m not going to be able to help you with a problem in yours. Small towns don’t have a lot of cops, because they don’t have a lot of anyone; a serious accident can tie up the majority of available cops for traffic control (seen it happen more than a few times).

      Second, distance becomes a factor. Even if I want to help, if I’m an hour away that means you’ve got to hold out for an hour before help can arrive. This is even more true for going to the state or federal services for help. You can call the National Guard or FBI or something, but unless you’re really lucky and live near a base or something it’s going to be hours before they show up, at best.

      If your story is set in, say, rural Nevada, response times could be much longer. I’ve driven 5 hours between towns out there and not seen a single human being. You’re on your own in such situations. It’s why geologists love it and OSHA safety staff hate it.

      Also, small town cops tend to lack firepower. They’ve got tactical shotguns and bullet-proof vests and other things, but they lack the financial backing to get more serious hardware. What that means is, if some heavy-hitting bad guys come in the cops can easily find themselves outmatched. Again, you CAN call the National Guard, FBI, and other groups, but you still have to survive until they get there.

      Note that none of this has to be Human Vs Human conflict. All of this works for Human Vs Nature just as well. Things like wildfires (where resources are stretched beyond their limits), house fires (which in small towns generally take multiple departments to handle), large storms (which can damage transportation routes), and the like can provide a lot of drama, while justifying a lack of response by other agencies and providing the writer with opportunities to throw random problems at the protagonists without it seeming contrived.

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