Readers can be a fickle bunch. They will believe whatever an author says about the story unless their suspension of disbelief is strained too far. We have to respect readers because of what they bring to the story even while we’re manipulating their emotions in order to make the story impactful for them. The writing is really only one half of the endeavor.
We writers need an audience to take our characters and bring them to life in their imaginations. The reader is willing to take our story and believe it emotionally, if only while they’re reading, unless they hit a snag. You know that moment. You’ve probably experienced it yourself.
A reader is laying in bed reading a book that’s really drawn them in. Their eyes race down page after page and often just as its getting to the good part they suddenly burst out with an indignant, “He did WHAT!?”
Now that their spouse, their neighbors and anyone else within a three mile radius who heard them is awake, they have to deal with the stupid mess the book just became. That is, after they’ve apologized and maybe gone downstairs to the living room to finish the chapter and that’s if they don’t just close the book right there and give up on it. Depending on how bad the suspension of disbelief was just blown, some readers might just permanently shelf the book and they’ll be very reluctant to buy another one from the same author if they do.
Why does this happen? When we are really believing in these characters and accepting the author’s efforts why is it that we can suddenly say, “But I don’t believe THAT of these characters.”
It’s easy for an author to be offended at this response. In writing critique groups you may have heard, “But it’s my character and my story and that’s what they do.” This is not a helpful outlook for an author to have. It’s the writing equivalent of saying, “Oh yeah, well I’m taking my toys and I’m going home.” You can’t improve if you hate instruction and finding out that your story bottomed out may hurt an awful lot but it’s important to know because you can still save it.
Your readers will come to expect things of your characters as they grow to know them and it’s your job to keep them consistent. Note that this doesn’t mean that a character can’t surprise a reader. Rather its your job to know why your characters do what they do and subtly support that in how you present them to your audience.
As an author your job is to make your characters believable. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing an impossible fantasy, people read stories because the characters move them. The story is important because of the people in it. We need to find realistic, interesting, and believable people inside the books we read for them to really captivate our imaginations.
Motivation is the key to driving character actions and consistent motivation makes characters behave in ways that we believe. Once you know your characters’ motivations then they will take hold of the plot and you can follow them through the story instead of having to drag them along like a stubborn dog on a leash. Strong characters drive interest and push the plot, once you populate your stories with real people who have needs, wants, goals and fears you will find them directing the action for you and you’ll just have to keep up.
I have some weekend exercises coming up this Friday to help you develop ways to write realistic characters, but for now try this challenge for a project you’re already working on.
Intermediate Octopus Exercise: A good check to see if you know your characters well enough to write them believably is to remove them from their story and put them in another one. Treat them as a native of the new story so you don’t spend your time on how they would adjust to being transported to a new place, but if you struggle to know what your character would do given the entirely different scenario then you may have a character who needs more definition.
Try writing 300 words (a scene or just a vignette) using the character from story A in an integral role in story B.
See what they do and why, maybe this can inform your native characters actions when you put them back where they belong. You may even discover that you like the stories better with the characters transposed.