Back with unwanted advice. This week it is all about the believable character.

Posted: December 28, 2014 in Writing
Tags: , ,

I was sitting over the holidays and thinking about what to do about my little corner of the blogosphere. I debated letting it go off into oblivion like the laserdisc. I decided against that and figured that the best thing I could do was to give unsolicited advice on writing. After all I have only written a few short stories and one novel length book, therefore I am no expert, but this is what I feel will actually make my advice prudent. You see, I am not going to be approaching my advice from an area of “thou shalt”. No, my advice will be more of “this is how I see it and what people have said when critiquing my work.” These nuggets of advice will be akin to a convicted burglar telling a young want to be how to avoid getting caught by steering him clear of the pitfalls that lead to incarceration.

So there you have the basic thoughts behind what I am looking to do. Lets start with one of the most basic things that every story needs– Characters. I have yet to come across a story that does not have at least one character in it, and to be truthful I feel that there should be at least two characters, although they don’t both need to be living. I’ll get to that in a bit.

Let’s start with one simple principle here. Your characters have to be believable. That’s what I’ve been told, and it is something that I strive for, but what does it mean? After all, most superhero stories have characters that do unbelievable things like fly and shoot laser beams out of their eyes. Are they breaking this rule in some way? The answer is no. The powers of the heroes is not what makes them characters. It is their actions and interactions that matter here. Their motivations and desires are what makes them believable.

So what will it take to be believable? That is one that I struggled with, and still do from time to time. I have boiled it down to two things. The first is that your characters should behave predictably. When bullets go flying the average person goes and hides whereas a police officer will move to action. When forced into a corner by danger most people will fight to the best of their abilities to save their lives. Mothers will defend their children at any cost and someone who is hungry will be fixated on that pile of fried chicken sitting in the middle of the table. Your characters have to do what readers would expect them to based on what you put forth. If a character is constantly going against expectation then you have done a poor job of setting up that expectation to start with, and need to re-evaluate the whole thing.

The second thing that is needed in your character is unpredictability. I know, I just said that predictability was key in a believable character and now I am saying the opposite, but hear me out. One of the things that people do not consciously realize about behavior is that it is actually hard to predict how someone will react 100% of the time. Even when the situation may seem to be the same as a previous one, there are always differences, not the least of which is that it is a different day or time. Maybe on Monday your character is okay with picking up the slack for a co-worker, but on Friday that just cramps his style, even if it is a lesser amount of work. If your character is to be believable there needs to be some level of the unexpected in her if you want readers to invest. There is something riveting about reading along and saying “whoa. I didn’t expect that, but cool.” Just make sure that your unpredictable moments are set up well. You don’t want your readers thinking what just happened is totally off base. Again, this all goes into what you have set up through your entire story.

Earlier I said that your characters don’t always have to be living, and I’m not just talking about ghosts and the like here. The weather can be a powerful character in a story if used correctly, though I am scared to do so to tell the truth. My two points here are just as valid, however. Weather patterns, as a whole, are predictable. The different air and water currents combined with the revolution of the Earth and its axial tilt have set up a fairly predictable set of conditions. Meteorologists rely on all of this to give you the weather forecast, and despite our desire to bemoan that they missed the high temperature by a few degrees or that the 10% chance of rain turned into an all day storm, they are pretty good at predicting what to expect, otherwise no one would even worry about listening to them in the first place. Weather is also unpredictable. A chance of a tornado means that one could be sighted, but exactly where is the question. If a storm is forecasted to dump a foot of snow on an area and the temperature doesn’t reach that all important temperature by half a degree, the storm goes by without a hitch, and the opposite can happen as well. How else do you explain people getting caught unawares constantly by the weather. It did something they didn’t expect, but it was no less unbelievable that it happened.

So there you have it. My first installment of “Advice your didn’t ask for”. Hopefully you can find some use for what I have said here. I know that keeping these ideas in mind have helped me as I work on my next big story. I’d tell you more, but I want you to be surprised when all is said and done.

As always, read, write and enjoy.

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