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I have a character who is a seasoned CIA agent and is part of the task force that is bringing in my MC. I have another character, a semi retired assassin who was one of my MC’s instructors.

I want to make this semi retired assassin the great uncle of the CIA agent but am concerned it might seem too convenient.

I want the relationship since it will allow the MC, who doesn’t really like or respect this one agent, to mellow towards him out of respect to the great uncle.

My question is, would it seem too unlikely and therefore coincidental and a possible cheat to have this older assassin (never caught) related to a CIA agent?

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    I am not sure whether this question is allowed on the Writing.SE. – Double U Dec 9 '18 at 4:33
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    I think that is fine. People can be related to anybody. We are all related in the big biological tree of life, anyway. What matters is the distance. I am more related to you than a chimpanzee is. – Double U Dec 9 '18 at 4:34
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    I'm also not sure what this question has to do with writing. You get to choose your world and your characters. There are reasons why someone might go into the same program as a relative. And there are many reasons why someone might have respect for a former instructor that have nothing to do with family ties. – Cyn says make Monica whole Dec 9 '18 at 6:22
  • @Cyn seems to me like a legitimate writing question: figuring out if a certain trope can be used in a situation, or if it's a cheap cop-out. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Dec 9 '18 at 11:45
  • Perhaps. I didn't vote to close or anything. I just was not seeing the connection. – Cyn says make Monica whole Dec 9 '18 at 17:19
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The trick to coincidences is to explain them. In

Coco

the fact a character bumps into someone who turns out to be

the ghost of their ancestor

is attributed to

his dog being a spirit guide,

as hinted at in the name

Dante.

(I don't normally add spoiler tags to my examples, but the film I mentioned is recent and amazing). In your case you want to explain why your MC has made a friend of one person and an enemy of their relative. How's that supposed to happen? Oh, I don't know; maybe the criminal-vs-law-enforcer conflict runs in families in-universe, but rebellion against one's family background is common, or at least explicable in this case. If the MC has cause to know many people on at least one side of the divide, as could be hinted in a packed scene, it works even better.

The funny thing about coincidences is their ruinous effect on a plot doesn't depend just on probability. One of Pixar's rules of storytelling states, "Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating." That's why Luke Skywalker can run afoul of the Empire because an escape pod landed within walking distance of his home (how likely is that on a whole planet?), but his torpedoing the first Death Star required the Force rather than just luck. Applying that to your story, it's OK to have the agent come after the MC because he knows him through his family, but not OK for the assassin to suddenly save the day and explain their knowledge of the MC being in danger in terms of a previously unknown relationship with the agent.

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  • +1 Murphy's Law. Coincidences that antagonize the MC are fine, coincidences that help the MC will break suspension of disbelief. – wetcircuit Dec 9 '18 at 18:19
  • This coincidence will certainly annoy the MC as he sees this agent as a mere cowboy who has no professionalism and that sets his teeth on edge. If he is the nephew of someone he respects and honours it will make him unable to hurt this character without a reckoning he would much rather avoid. – Rasdashan Dec 9 '18 at 18:53
  • @Rasdashan Insofar as such a reaction from the MC is realistic or true to the character, it's worth throwing in. It may be a good topic for the plot too. – J.G. Dec 9 '18 at 19:55
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Coincidences, like magic, can fulfil two roles.

  1. Cause problems
  2. Solve problems

Coincidences that make problems

To cause problems, the audience needs no explanation. After all, we read stories to see characters deal with unexpected problems (that's pretty much all plots).

How many movies, TV episodes, books, etc. have a plot that goes "there once was a person and something-or-the-other just so happened to happen right by them and, as a result, plot..."?

  • Four children just so happened to stay in a house with a magic portal hidden in a wardrobe and just so happened to find it.

  • Some guy just so happened to get bitten by a spider that just so happened to have been changed in some way and it just so happened to give him spider-like powers.

  • Some young man just so happened to find a gap in the fence between the normal and magic world and ended up going on an adventure (and finding love).

Watch or read Dirk Gently (very different despite the names). These stories pretty much run on this but turned up to eleven.

Coincidences that solve problems

To solve problems and have it be a satisfying read is a whole other story. Brandon Sanderson's first law of magic goes something like, "The ability of magic to resolve the plot in a satisfying way is directly proportional to how well the audience understands the magic".

If I were to create a cheesy ripoff, Matthew Brown's first law of coincidence would state, "The ability of coincidence to resolve the plot in a satisfying way is directly proportional to how far in advance the audience sees the coincidence coming". That's pretty much how dramatic irony works.

In other words, if you drop new information in right at the end, readers will feel cheated; if, on the other hand, you telegraph this information, allow the characters to discover it in the nick of time - especially if the readers are screaming at the characters to notice - and then they can act on this information, it will still be satisfying to read.

These examples carry mild unmarked spoilers.

  • For example, Luke Skywalker just so happened to be the son of Darth Vader.

  • For example, Thr3e by Ted Dekker. (The book is good, the film stinks IMHO). The protagonist keeps running into apparent coincidences that connect him to the antagonist. By the reveal (at least, in the book) everything comes together and it becomes clear that this has been telegraphed from the start.

  • For example, Harry Potter just so happened to have the matching wand to the big bad (which saves him).

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I think it is too convenient, and an implausible motivation. At least in my culture (USA) great uncles don't get any particular respect, heck I didn't have any particular respect for all of my own aunts and uncles; they were a few pretty shady characters. A thief, a prostitute, a serial womanizer cheating on multiple wives.

I would suggest some real reason for grudging respect: Have your seasoned CIA agent tell your MC that not only did this "assassin" save his life, but the lives of twenty school age girls kidnapped for the sex trade, by single-handedly infiltrating the compound where they were being held and killing the six mobsters holding them. So sure, he's a shady guy that you think has done some wicked sh*t, but maybe you don't know the whole story, and what the alternatives were. It's a good lesson for getting into the spy trade, good people can do awful things when doing nothing would result in something horrifically worse.

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  • Interesting point, though he does not know his great uncle is an assassin though the MC does – Rasdashan Dec 9 '18 at 18:55
  • Well if he doesn't know, a hero story from his recruiter may go even further. The assassin guy just doesn't brag on the things he has done, so the MC doesn't realize the assassin guy is more than just an assassin, he is a guy that has taken serious risks with his life to save innocents. The point is people aren't always who you think. The MC has a problem to balance "assassin" with "bona fide hero", but it has to tip the balance toward mellowing. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Dec 9 '18 at 19:15
  • My MC is a former CIA assassin so completely understands that dark deeds can be required. What bothers him is this CIA agent who insists on holding him at gun point almost 24/7. That character helped save his protégée but it seems somewhat overshadowed by the constant threat of accidental execution – Rasdashan Dec 9 '18 at 20:13
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Two answers.

(1)

If the great uncle is the reason that the nephew became a CIA agent, I think this is fine. The uncle provided the motivation to the nephew. These are causal, not coincidental.

I think ^^ this answer ^^ is more relevant to your question than my other thoughts, below.

(2)

More broadly, my sense is that coincidences are fine if a reason or two is provided before the reveal.

In the case of the MC discovering that the assassin is a relative of the agent, you can world-build things in ahead of time:

~Adoption might be part of the storyline wherever it fits.

~These two related characters share a distinctive feature or characteristic, perhaps a fondness for spicy food or some such. This is tipoff to the reader to soften them up.

~I am sure you can brainstorm creative world building explanations. Maybe only a slice of society has access to certain careers. Play with it.

If you have these sorts of things up front, although you'll need to hit the right note with it, it can work.

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