Luck doesn’t come naturally to some people, especially in your novel. The truth is, if the wrong people in your novel start getting lucky, people will stop trusting you as a writer. Your characters won’t be solving your character’s problems; circumstances will be solving your character’s problems. More likely than not, circumstance isn’t your novel’s hero.
And it gets better, because we’re not just talking about ‘luck’ here. We’re talking about any time your storyline goes unexplainably outside the norm to make things work for your hero (“I’m always angry” moment in ‘The Avengers’, anyone?)
Your hero is in a fight, and happens to find a gun hidden on top of the hutch. Your hero is trying to solve a closed homicide case, and just happens to find (obvious) evidence at the crime scene that no one else found thought the entire investigation. Your hero is in a prison and the guard that happens to walk to close to your hero’s cell is also the guy with the keys. (And let’s not forget the cronies who discuss their evil plan while the hero is hiding behind the barrels in the corner.)
So, here are two rules to help you figure out what luck is okay, and what luck isn’t.
1. Luck can’t help your hero
Ever. If your hero is getting lucky instead of getting brave, he isn’t a hero. Your hero cannot be helped by circumstance. Being heroic means taking action, not waiting for things to fall into place.
2. Luck can’t stop your villain
In addition, Luck can’t hinder your villain. Never can a villain have to plan or work around something that wasn’t the hero’s doing. If your villain isn’t powerful enough to work around circumstance, then your villain isn’t powerful enough to warrant being a villain. Not your villain anyway.
Luck can’t be noticeable
So you know how some rules are meant to be broken? The two I wrote above are both those kinds of rules. At some point in your novel, when something ‘lucky’ happens, it may just help your hero out… that’s just how luck works. Your job is to make it invisible. No one else can see it happening. You have to overshadow it.
Work your hero
If your hero is too busy working his tail off to get at the villain, the reader won’t notice the little detail that happens to fall into place. Make sure your hero is busy solving problems ‘a’,’ b’, ‘c’, and ‘d’, and when luck solves problem ‘E’, we’re less likely to notice.
Good has a cost
This is the same rule that applies to all fiction writing. If something good happens, it has a cost. If your hero gets a break, make it cost something. (Check out my related post: Finding Failure in Success, Parts One and Two.)
Luck can’t solve a foreshadowed problem
In Marvel’s “The Avengers”, Bruce Banner had a problem. In the Avengers’ first bit of action, the Hulk goes berserk, almost killing Black Widow, in an uncontrollable rage. Later, he says he’s just “always angry,” and that’s supposed to help us believe that he can control the Other Guy’s anger… somehow. It doesn’t explain his episode earlier in the movie, and it doesn’t answer any questions. It just happens, and we’re supposed to believe it. It’ convenient. It’s ‘lucky’. It’s unbelievable. You story’s big, foreshadowed, dreaded problems should NOT be solved by anything other than the hero’s efforts.
What is luck good for?
So, there are a lot of ways that luck shouldn’t mess with your story, but does it have a part in your novel at all?
Getting a Break
Your hero has battled the villain through the whole book. They’re exhausted, demoralized, and at a dead end. (Plus, the black moment has just stripped them of their friends…) They need a break, and they just can’t find one. Then it happens… something falls into place giving your hero the lead they need. Think of Gideon Grey pointing out the Night Howlers to Judy Hopps in Zootopia. Judy simply got lucky in that scene, but it didn’t feel cheap. Why? There are a couple of reasons.
1. Your hero should still have to work
In Zootopia, Judy learns just enough from Gideon to know where to look next. She still has to crash the villain’s party (pun intended) and do all the work of the climax. Also, Gideon’s revelation didn’t negate the work that Judy and Nick put in up to that scene. Relatively speaking, Gideon’s tip was a small part of the mystery that Judy had to put together. It’s important that your hero has to do most of the work, if not all of it. That’s their job.
2. The break should come as a result of the novel’s theme
If Judy hadn’t broken outside of the species mold and become a cop, then her parents wouldn’t have been friends with Gideon, a fox. If they weren’t friends with him, he wouldn’t have been there to help Judy. If you follow it all the way back, Judy’s stand was the reason that she got her break. Whatever ‘luck’ you give your hero should sprout from the novel’s theme. (Plus, this is a really easy way to show your theme to the reader! #bonuspoints )