Friday, March 18, 2016

Nope, Not Buying It: How Do We Maintain Believability in Our Writing?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

While you might think believability is something only science fiction and fantasy writers have to deal with, all stories in all genres get bonked on the head when they lack credibility. We get readers who don’t believe a character would act a certain way, who don’t believe the situation would ever happen, who don’t believe how something is handled. Once we blow our credibility with a reader, it’s really hard to earn back their trust. Especially if the credibility is blown over something plot related.

A lot of it depends on how we craft our situations. Human nature says people typically try the path of least resistance to solve a problem. If a button pops off our shirt while we’re getting dressed, it’s easier to grab a new shirt than to sew it back on. And sewing it back on is easier than taking it down to the tailor’s to have it professionally mended. If we have our protagonist lose a button, then hop in the car and go to the tailor to have it fixed, and while they’re there something happens that affects the plot, readers will cry foul. They probably won’t even believe the going to get it fixed right away part, let alone the contrivance of having the protagonist so conveniently in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Let characters behave like real people. 

Sure, people can do all kinds of unbelievable things, but their reasons need to be solid and something readers can see doing if they were in that character’s shoes. They might decide to do something else, but they can see why someone would do as the character does.

What’s the most obvious thing to do? The easiest thing to do?  

Yes, I know this will in all likelihood trash the plot, but if something is obvious and simple and the protagonist doesn’t do it, that’s a credibility issue in the making. But all is not lost. Tweak it so that obvious thing can’t work--it’s not available, it will cause something else, the protagonist has strong reasons not to do it, whatever works for the scene. Keep asking, if this doesn’t work, what then? and work though the obvious answers, taking those options out so the thing to do is what you need the protagonist to do.

What are the character's motivations for it?

One movie cliché I can’t stand is the “cover your head in terror as something falls on you” shot. We’ve all seen it. Someone looks up, sees something crashing toward them, and they throw their hands over their head and scream. If they have enough time to do all that, they probably have enough time to dive out of the way. I know it’s just a way to show fear and make it more dramatic, but it bugs me every time. They have no reason to just stand there. I’d rather they stand there looking shocked than throw their hands up. Too shocked to move I can buy. Knowing it’s coming and not moving? Nope, not buying it. And here’s the kicker–for all I know, this is a perfectly legitimate response to this situation. I’ve never had anything large drop on me. But it feels wrong to me, so it never feels credible.

No matter what your characters have to do, make sure their reasons for it make sense to them. The reader can still think they’re idiots, but as long as they can see that, yeah, they’d do it that way too if they were in that character’s shoes, they’ll go with it.

Avoid the circle of (bad) plot. 

One plot device that often has credibility issues is a situation where someone acts against the protagonist to keep them from doing something, and that act is what makes the protagonist do the very thing they wanted to stop. Chosen One stories are frequent offenders here. The bad guys know a chosen one will mean their doom, so they send their minions out to kill that person. But the person had no idea about this bad guy until those minions show up. Had the bad guys just left him alone and had his minions keep an eye out in case he ever did come a calling, they’d have been home free.

(Here's more on why you should ask why)

Actions to prevent something that ultimately causes the effect to happen feel forced. Bad guys need solid motivations same as the good guys. Situations should feel as though they couldn’t have happened any other way and this was inevitable. The actions of both sides led to this.

Be wary of contradictions of character.  

Have you ever seen a character suddenly change their mind out of the blue? Or do something they’d never do in a million years? Credibility issues. People are who they are and they don’t change without good reasons (and often external forces). Problem is, most novels have a character arc that requires the protagonist to grow by the end of the book. So when we get there, bam! Our protagonist sees the light and changes their ways. But unless the groundwork had been laid to get there, it feels forced.

(Here's more on creating plots that don’t feel like accidents) 

Make sure you characters have reasons to change. They learned a lesson prior to that change that made them realize they had to do things differently. Most commonly, this is done by showing them make the wrong choice (or do the wrong thing) and having it blow up on them. They paid a price and want to avoid paying it again. They try something new, something that leads them toward who they need to be at the end, and they’re rewarded for it. Positive reinforcement.

Don't break your own rules.

One sure way to cause reader doubt is to break your own rules. If you’ve established that magic can’t work underwater, then have your hero use it underwater to solve a problem, readers will notice and be unhappy. It won’t matter if you explain why this time it worked after it’s all over, you’ve already lost the reader. The only way it will work, is if you’ve hinted at this and laid the groundwork for it all along. Rules of a world (fantasy or real) ground the reader and let them know what can and cannot happen. They’ll suspend disbelief for the framework of that world. You’ve set the parameters and they agreed. Breaking that contract is cheating.

(Here's more on playing by the rules of magic)

Watch out for silent reasons.

If you get a credibility issue comment in a critique, don’t automatically assume what you’re doing isn’t plausible. It could just be that you didn’t lay enough groundwork so the reader didn’t pick up on the reasons and the motivations for it. The character did act exactly right, but the problem occurred five pages earlier when you didn’t make it clear enough why they’d have to do it. This is pretty common for “I don’t believe they’d act this way” comments. It’s not always the action that’s the issue, just them doing it as is that feels off.

(Here's more on filling plot holes)

The biggest thing you can do to make your characters and novels believable is to make sure everything has a reason behind it that makes sense even if the story wasn’t there. While some things are okay if they just happen (like a lot of genre setup), readers will only suspend disbelief for so long until they start doubting you. They’ll believe a magic wardrobe can take them to another world, but that world had better adhere to the rules established.

Avoid anything that happens “just because.” That’ll hurt you every time.

What credibility issues drive you crazy? What are some of your pet peeves?

If you're looking for more to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. My own person pet peeve is a character doing something for the sake of the plot. One book had guards in a environment where they should have been smart making dumb mistake after dumb mistake to let the bad guys in.

    I've also run into several different issues flagged as credibility issues, but were issues with the particular person.

    1. Fight scenes. These people wanted fight scenes to be completely realistic. They were perfectly happy if the entire fight scene lasted only a paragraph as long as it was realistic. They didn't find it at all believe to have characters pausing to react or analyze the situation -- or the other elements of suspense that action readers would commonly want with fight scenes.

    2. The same people also struggle with storylines with a fanstatical element. Thriller, for example, might have a search for the Elixir of Life. To that person, the Elixir of Life doesn't exist, therefore the story isn't credible. They are unable to make the distinction that if you make it believable within the story, it can work.

    1. Linda: the reason that many characters do things out of character--against beliefs, logic, or conviction--is because they are untrustworthy or unstable characters. I'd like to cite a movie example: in the movie Armageddon, A.J., Ben Affleck's character, keeps doing stupid things because he is not trustworthy at the beginning of the movie. But in the course of the story, he must change, and he does. At the end, Harry Stamper is about to take on the second most important, and the second worst, task he will ever do: to kill himself as he blows up the asteroid with a nuclear device to save the world. The most important task and responsibility Harry will ever have and do is to take care of his little girl--or see that she is cared for by someone he can trust. For all of A.J.'s stupidity, Harry understands that he can trust A.J. with that responsibility. The nobility of Harry Stamper is passed on to A.J. The symbol of that passing of the responsibility is when A.J. gives Dan Truman, played by Billy Bob Thornton, Harry's own mission patch--one of the things Truman says he wishes he could have earned. Harry Stamper earns it for him. He trusts A.J. to give the patch to Dan Truman. Characters in fiction grow. Growth is why they eist.

    2. Unreliable/untrustworthy/unstable characters are a completely different thing from characters being marionettes to fit a plot.

      The point remains that you can get away with a character doing pretty much anything as long as you have enough on the page for the reader to follow the reason(s) the character does it.

  2. Great points. I agree with Linda that it's frustrating that a person does something just for the plot or does something completely not realistic for a person of their age without the set up beforehand.

  3. I think this is one of the points that you need to have lots of people critiquing your work. What seems plausible or credible for one person, isn't necessarily the same for another. I had dozen people read my first chapter before someone said, 'hey I don't buy that'. It's annoying to fix, but there's nothing more annoying to read than something you can't believe. I think my pet peeve would be the high coincidences. One I can buy to start off the story, but after that I don't believe them.

  4. I think anything can be made believable in the hands of a skilled writer. Its usually the lack of craft why a plot or character is unbelievable. I've read some pretty fantastical books but bought every convoluted plot point because it was so well done!

  5. I think beta readers are key here. Sometimes, I can't hear what I've written because I've worked the silly thing over too many times. I think I've mentioned something five chapters back, but it was actually cut in the 10th revision. In my brain, it's still there though.

  6. A 100% nerdy idea...whenever I'm really stuck with what a character's doing because it feels stilted, I sit back and think about what I'd do if this were my character in a DnD campaign. Changing gears from "making novel work" to "achieve goals for this person" usually helps me pick the smartest thing that character would do. It tends to shoot the outline in the foot, but I either work around that (cut off smartest option) or run with it because it's better than the outline.

  7. Johnny Carson said it best. "If they buy the premise, they'll buy the bit."

    You have to foreshadow all those things your character is going to do later when it's a plot-critical moment. It can be simple -- my hero can braid the heroine's daughter's hair because he used to show his pony at the fair. Or more complex. The heroine learned how to shoot as a child, so she doesn't just pop up with that skill when the hero hands her a gun. Or just happen to be able to speak French when the bad guys are conferring in that language. Set it all up first, in minor situations.

    Lee Child is an expert at this.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  8. Great rules here :) I think you're totally right that these will help make your story and characters more believable.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  9. Sometimes the believability comes from the reader's experience, or lack thereof. In my adult romantic suspense, Rattled, there is a large cat that defends his people from danger, jumping into fights with bad guys and snakes. My New York agent, who has two apartment cats, didn't buy it. My New Mexico friend said it was totally believable -- one knew a cat that would attack rattlesnakes. I left it, but I also had the people acknowledge how unusual this cat is.

    Sid Fleischman said, "Point out a hole and it goes away." Sometimes it's just a matter of having your characters say, "I don't know why I didn't just.... I guess I wasn't thinking clearly." This doesn't always work, but if the character is under enough stress and time pressure, they might do foolish things. Don't we all?

  10. This was a terrific post. I don't have anything to add -the other comments pretty much said everything- but I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate this topic.

  11. You’ve covered it quite well.

    Like you said, a complicated plan vs a simple effective one… i.e. the five Harry Potters in deathly Hallows: Harry could have thrown on his invisibility cloak and walked away.

  12. A critique partner of mine didn't like that my character didn't want to try something right away in my story and I had her just say she had to go home. I think I was in a hurry to get to the next scene, which was a very important one. She was absolutely right that the character would have demanded to try it right now so I let her.;)

  13. Gosh I have this problem all the time, and this was really helpful, especially what you said about tweaking it so that the obvious thing doesn't work. Thanks!

  14. Linda: That's a good point about some readers just not buying the premise. There's not much you can do about that if they just can't suspend disbelief.

    Natalie: The age issue is also one of my pet peeves, especially when it comes to self awareness. People in general don't always know why they do what they do.

    Andrea: That certainly helps. My crits groups are invaluable there. I'm with you on the coincidences.

    Laura: I'd have to agree there. T Here have been movies I've seen that never should have worked but did. Can't think of any books offhand that did, but I'm more open weird with movies than weird books :)

    Vvdenman: I call that "revision smudge" myself. Those get me all the time if I'm doing a lot of revising. Time away from the manuscript between reads helps as well if you don't have beta readers.

    MK: I love that. I was interviewed by a gaming site last year, and they asked me if my gameplaying helped my writing. I'd never thought about that before but I do think all those years of RPGs trained me how to plot and figure out what a character would do next.

    Terry: Totally agree ;)

    Sarah: Thanks! Readers want to buy into our stories, so it doesn't take much.

    Kris: Very good point about the experience thing. I think "hang a lantern on it" is the screenplay equivalent of the Fleishman quote. I remember hearing that at some point and it does work. I did exactly that in Darkfall actually. Something got pass every single draft and crit until the copy editor (on round two or three) asked "What doesn't Nya just do X?" Made perfect sense, but it messed up the whole plot. But it was a situation where it was plausible for her to think, "Duh, I should have done that!" after. I hope it works once the book it out there, LOL.

    Chicory: Thanks!

    Jeff: Those are the ones that bug me. I can get past them more in movies, but I hold books to a higher standard. :)

    Dark Mistress: Fun! I should do a post on the "Don't wannas." Hmm. I wonder if I have? Sounds kinda familiar now that I type it.

    Wendy: Most welcome!

  15. Great points! I especially love the advice about simply putting up a road block against the easy way out. I've done that and it works beautifully--easy fix to a tangly problem. What I struggle with is coming up with every easy way out possible so I can block them all. When I miss one, I almost always end up with a plot hole later on down the line. Not sure why it works that way, but that's my experience. I agree with everyone else who said GET CRITIQUE PARTNERS. Best way to quality test your plot.

  16. Crit partners are so valuable for this stuff. What one person spots as easy another doesn't even see.

  17. Hi Janice. In the first chapter of an ebook I recently tried to read, a high school female basketball player was hurt while finishing off an ally-oop slam dunk. Uh huh. I let that one go. Later in the chapter, the author claimed to have been skipped from the 1ST grade to the 7TH. Game over.

    Of course, those things could be true, but "nope, not buying it."

  18. Ray, ooo yeah, I'd have put that one down too. You'd have to work pretty hard to get me to buy that.

  19. I' an Author who's a person of faith and I'm gay; I spent 25+ years in the ministry. I get angry when I read "religious fiction" that has no idea what it means to be gay, beyond the sterotypes. On the flip side, I get annoyed when gay writers present religious people or churches in a way that shows they have no actual experience, or haven't done homework, beyond the examples.

    I recently read a novel supposedly about a Baptist minister who takes a position as the new pastor of a church in Texas. The man's son comes out as gay. By the time I was about a third of the way through the book, it was obvious to me that the author had never been in the ministry and probably never been in leadership at a Baptist Church, particularly in Texas. I stopped reading.

    1. Great examples. I think many people just assume they know how things work because they've seen it on TV or read a book once. I'm sure I'm guilty of it, too, but I try to make things accurate :) Sometimes we just don't know what we don't know.

  20. Thanks for reposting. Great reminders.