Few things irritate fiction readers more than a story peopled by characters who act and react without any apparent reason for what they’re doing and saying. No reason, that is, except to illustrate the author’s message. Or prove the author’s point.
Well, you say, don’t we all have a message or point in what we write? Isn’t fiction about letting our characters take the readers on a journey of discovery and even realization? Yes…and no. Writers of powerful fiction keep in mind that the story trumps all. The story, and the characters who people it, should be crafted such that it all presents ideas, challenges understanding, and encourages discourse. It should feel authentic. If a character faces a struggle, we need to understand why he is struggling. If a character experiences joy, we need to know why that even brought her joy. When a fiction writer just has characters do and say what will prove their point or “teach” their message, without showing the why behind it all, without laying a sound foundation for the character to do and say what he is doing and saying, that writer is no longer writing fiction, but delivering a sermon. Or even worse, a story that’s…wait for it…contrived.
Dear ol’ Webster defined contrived as: “having an unnatural or false appearance or quality : artificial, labored.”
When it comes to fiction, I define contrived as “weak writing.”
Think about it. The last thing you want your readers doing as they read your book is constantly stopping, frowning, and asking, “Why did he do that?” or “Why did she say that?” I’m not talking about the good kind of “why,” where readers want to keep reading to discover the answer to the mystery or the story question. No, this kind of why means the characters aren’t doing their jobs. They’re on the page, acting and speaking…but it doesn’t mean anything because you haven’t given reasons for what the characters are doing.
Suppose you have a hero who is constantly second guessing himself. He goes one way, and then another, and then another entirely. If we don’t understand what’s making said hero do such things, we end up thinking he’s weak, wishy-washy, and even irritating. “Make a choice, idiot, and stick with it!”) But if we know WHY he’s acting that way it changes everything. When we know that our hero was abused as a kid, that every time he took a stand he was punished, that every decision he’s ever made has been ridiculed…then we realize that he’s not operating out of being a twit, but out of a deep-rooted fear. When we understand the why, we are far more willing to go along with what, on the surface, is maddening behavior. Understanding the why gives readers a sense of empathy, and even encourages them to root for the character. (“Come on, dude, you can do it! Grow a spine!”)
Remember, though, the reason, the why, has to be sound. It can’t be just, “I’ll have him say this because it’s what I need him to say now.”
Yes, we novelists have created our characters. And yes, we have reasons for writing the stories we’re writing (and that applies to general market writers as much as Christian writers…we all have a message at the core of what we write), but folks, do your characters–and your readers–a favor and make sure your characters aren’t just puppets on the page. Flesh them out, let who they are and why they are, what drives them and what terrifies them, what delights them and what upsets them, unfold with the story. Let your characters come alive on the page, let them be authentic in what they say and do, and let them have solid reasons for it all.
When you lay a solid, credible foundation of why, story, your characters, and your readers all benefit.
I recently put a book down–one by a bestselling author who has never let me down before–for exactly this reason. In this case, the heroine had proved herself to be Too Stupid To Live. When I start rooting for the bad guys, I know there’s a problem.
Of course, it’s easy to see it in other people’s writing. It’s not so obvious in my own. 🙂
Great thoughts! Going to keep this one in the forefront of my mind! I’m also going to ask my beta readers if they see this in my work at all. Thanks!
Karen, you just described why I don’t particularly enjoy most novellas. Making enough characters three dimensional instead of cardboard cutouts requires enough words to flesh them out. I usually find myself saying, “They wouldn’t have done that yet!” and “Where did that come from?” I could probably count on my fingers and toes the number of novellas that I’ve read that don’t feel even a little bit contrived. It must have taken superb craft to squeeze what’s required into 50K words. I know novella writers must keep it fast and short, but I’m willing to spend more time to have a believable 3D read.
Having organic plots with believable characters is something I particularly ask my betas to help me with. I specifically ask them to watch for any place where the characters, even the minor ones, don’t think and act like real people. I ask them to make sure each character is staying true to form as well. Whenever they spot something, I rewrite it.
The consequence of that goal of consistency and believability is that my novels, which are historicals with more than 2 POV characters and complex plots, run 95K to 115K words. Most of the novels I love to read are about the same length as what I write.
I truly hope my characters are being themselves and not puppets! I’ve found writing a backstory for the main character has helped me to understand the motivation behind her actions. It’s made me like her even more too, to know why she is the way she is, how she got here. She’s flawed, real. And when she stubbornly refuses to hug someone, something she’s painfully longed for most of her life, I understand why and can bring out the backstory through the internal dialogue.
But I think I have a deeply sentimental side and I always want to see a somewhat happy ending…especially when I care for the character. There are so many threads running through: God, her past tragedies, searching for purpose. Please tell me, Karen, how can I tie the threads and bring about a real ending where the message is subtle and not forced? I want to leave a little question mark so I can extend this novel into the next (God willing), but I don’t want it to be so large I cheat the reader from any sense of closure or make them toss the book across the room because everything ended all neat and tidy. I want to keep things a little messy and real. Any advice?
One tactic I believe will always make characters shine is to establish their individual conflict(s) the moment we introduce them. I do this by answering three questions for EVERY major (and even some minor) player:
1. What do they want?
2. Why do they want it?
3. Who or what will stop them from getting it?
It’s an old saying story IS conflict but even more important is to make the personal conflicts clear at the outset. To me this is really the only way to get readers invested in what’s going on.
I generally stay very close to keeping my character driven plots simple and my characters complex. I run a storyline A , the external actions of a character, with storyline B, the internal actions (thoughts, anguish, doubt, guilt etc.) of a character simultaneously which gives reason and soundness to the ongoing action. Utilizing this technique I can make just about anything super plausible, realistic and interesting.
In support of this style I always start with a killer hook, (very, very, important) real quick (if not immediately) into the story. I want the reader “with me” from page one. Throughline development begins very early on, I never let the pacing fall below stall speed at its lowest. The armature of the story grows progressively stronger. Theme development is suttle, never obvious or preachy but ultimately impactful and rewarding. I strive to craft stories with an arc that resoundingly delivers on the initial (back to page one) promise of a terrific vicarious experience. which I pray to never fail to deliver on.
Sheri Dean Parmelee
Thanks for the sage advice, Karen. I have found myself asking many of the same questions you offered as I have read a novel….it is irritating when characters do something out of character. It’s like you are riding along on a bicycle and someone jumps out of a bush and puts a stick in your front tire. It really throws you off.
L Y Easley
Excellent and needed!
There’s a trope called “the idiot ball,” used whenever a lazy (or rushed) writer needs someone to do something stupid just to advance the plot. When a character otherwise portrayed as reasonable and sensible does something completely moronic purely because the story needs him to we say he’s been handed the idiot ball.
It’s a REALLY jarring moment for the writer or viewer, because the character no longer feels like a real person.
Thanks much–enjoyed the post.
Damon J. Gray
Okay, now that’s just funny. I have never heard of “the idiot ball,” but I love it. I believe this may be a concept that extends well beyond writing. I can envision some “idiot ball” events that have played out before my eyes.
Thanks, Damon. You see it happen a lot with writing for episodic television–with the production demands and thus the constant need for new scripts writers frequently have to take shortcuts to move the plot along.
Leonard Nimoy didn’t use the expression “idiot ball” but he was famously unhappy with some of the things the writers had Spock do on “Star Trek” that Mr. Spock would “logically” have been far too smart for. Their defense was always that they were on deadline and needed to move the plot along so, Leonard, please can you just read the script the way it’s written?