Believability

No, I’m not getting into the debate about whether or not an author can create a believable character simply because the author isn’t female or gay or non-white or whatever. No, this is about making sure your characters and their motivations are believable in the world you create in your novel or short story. It started when I was reading a series of reviews on Goodreads about 50 Shades of Grey and it became fodder for the blog when I was reading a book description this morning.

At the risk of insulting a lot of folks out there, let me begin by saying I hated 5o Shades. I found the books poorly written and even more poorly edited. I couldn’t stand the main characters. Worse, I couldn’t believe in them. It wasn’t that Anastasia was still a virgin when she graduated college. No, it was that she could barely use a computer and iPod. She’s sheltered and sexually naive and yet she falls into a relationship with Grey that would have most women running for the hills. As for Grey, well, that man needed to be in intensive therapy for years. Beyond that, as much of an ass as he was portrayed to be, can you really tell me some gossip rag wouldn’t have outed him for what he was years before Ana came into the picture?

In other words, I couldn’t believe their characterizations or motivations.

Then there was the book description I read this morning. It was for an urban fantasy, maybe a paranormal romance. I’m not sure because I didn’t even finish reading the blurb. It was enough to know that the main character is a vampire who, for whatever reasons, is out there hunting down her own kind to protect humans. There’s nothing to allude to the possibility that she does so because she has some honor-bound duty to or even because if vampires are allowed to “breed” unchecked, the humans will soon become extinct and then what will the vamps do for food? No, all we’re told is that she does this and now the vamps and werewolves are looking at forming a truce of sorts and that mustn’t be allowed at all.

So right off the bat, I don’t know what the character’s motivation might be. Without even a hint of what it might be, I don’t want to read the book because it doesn’t make sense. Even in a blurb, there has to be that element of believability to pull your reader in. Just putting in conflict isn’t enough — at least not for me.

That’s an issue I faced when I started writing Nocturnal Origins (and the subsequent books in the series) and then again in Hunted and Hunter’s Duty . I had to figure out how to make the main characters seem like they could exist in our world and yet have these extraordinary things happen to them. With Origins (as well as Nocturnal Serenade and Nocturnal Interlude) it meant finding a way to have Mackenzie Santos realize that her life and her world have been turned upside down and will never be the same again. It isn’t an easy transition for her, especially since it means she finds herself having to find a way to reconcile the “monster” she’s become with her duties as a cop. She wrestles with the possibility that she’s simply losing her mind in the first book. After all, people don’t turn furry on nights of the full moon, at least not without donning a costume. Even after she begins to accept her shapeshifter nature, she has to deal with a sense of betrayal because her family hadn’t warned her. What she doesn’t do is automatically accept and revel in what she is becoming nor does she forsake the oaths she took and still holds dear. Instead, she does her best to find a way to hold true to those oaths without bringing danger to herself or the others like her.

The Hunter’s Moon series is a bit different, hence the pen name, in that it is closer to paranormal romance than straight urban fantasy. The characters in the first two books have been raised knowing they are shapeshifters. They know there are others like themselves. And, as with the Nocturnal Lives series, the world-at-large is unaware of the existence of shapeshifters and that is how the shifters would like it to stay, at least until they find a way to reveal their existence without sparking a war between shifters and normals.

In the Hunter’s Moon series, the challenge has been not to fall into the trap so many authors have when it comes to paranormal romance — my characters having sex just because it’s expected. The books are far from a series of sex scenes being tied together with a little bit of plot. I’ve worked hard to make the main male and female characters be complements of one another. Both are strong, in their own ways, but also have faults and weaknesses. More than that, they have motivations that most of us can understand — the need to keep your word after saying you’d do something, doing your job and duty, protecting those who aren’t able to protect themselves, family duty and honor.

If I can’t believe in a character or her motivation, I’m not going to enjoy the book. So, if you have a vampire out there killing her own kind, give me a reason. I know why Blade was out there hunting the vamps. It made sense. Don’t give me broken characters with broken motivations that could never exist more than a few days in this world without either breaking down completely or being splashed across the gossip columns for all to see.

Edited to add:

Many thanks to Jason Cordova and the rest of the Shiny Book Review folks for their review of Nocturnal Interlude today.

 

About the author

Writer, proud military mom and possessed by two crazy cats and one put-upon dog. Writes under the names of Amanda S. Green, Sam Schall and Ellie Ferguson.

Comments

  1. One of the many reasons that I disliked the so-called reboot of Piper’s _Little Fuzzy_ was Scalzi’s characterization of the corporate “big-shot”. That “big-shot” was completely unbelievable.

  2. I watched 50 minutes of the first episode of Helix, and stopped in disgust. My “Bridge over the chasm of disbelief” broke *4* times in less than 30 minutes. Here are a _few_ of the stupidities: 1) Villain/victim tears hand off to gain access to living areas; 2) No alarms on “hidden monkey research area”; 3) RFID chips in each person, but *can’t tell where escaped patient is (see point 1); 4) Research monkeys found _frozen_ outside facility; and that’s just the ones from memory.
    *Where were the continuity editors?* Where are/were the just plain editors.
    I would expect this level of C–P from NBC, not SYFY, while NBC gives us Grimm, which is a quality you’d expect from SYFY. Sigh.

    1. I haven’t even tried Helix because it is from Syfy. I’ve seen too many bad movies from them and there were enough “WTF?” moments in the promos that I figured it was going to be one of those shows I could live without.

  3. I think even when the fantasy or SF setting is completely unbelievable, the characters doing things, with the feelings and motivations that the reader understands, can make the story engrossing, if not quite tipping the scale into believable. Terry Pratchett leaps to mind.

    1. Pam, I absolutely agree. But it happens because, as you said, we understand the feelings and motivations of the characters — in other words, they react and act in believable ways. That’s missing in all too many stories these days, imo. Funny thing is, I read more that fall into the unbelievable category from the legacy publishers than I do from indies these days.

      1. I could say something clever about preaching instead of reaching, or PC vs biology . . . But all things considered, I think I’ll just go fix breakfast, it’s much more satisfying.

    2. Isn’t it the same way in comedy – the more outlandish the scenario or setup, the more the characters must play it straight in order to get the audience to follow along and laugh?

  4. I can’t believe I’m doing this, but… in defense of 50SoG, the one thing I didn’t find unbelievable about it was Ana’s “base state,” a naive virgin who falls into a very intense sexual relationship very quickly.

    The reason for this is that I have met Ana. More than once. I’ve had relationships with Ana. At least, that aspect of her. Yes, there are such women. Rarer and rarer in this smartphone-porn-abundant age, but they do exist. Some of them make Ana look downright dowdy. I mind me a 21-year old medical student (she finished college in 3 years) who had never even kissed a man who fell into a BDSM relationship that would have made Ana freak right the Hell out. (She was approximately fifty times smarter than Ana, and her dominant was not a financial idiot-savant, so it turned out fine.)

    On a more general note, I’d say that I very rarely have an issue with a character’s base state: I’ve met a lot of people who, had a skeptic encountered them in a book, would simply not have been believable. (I’ve been that person: honest to Bog, people have asked me, “Are you sure you’re real?”) What I can’t stand is inconsistency in characters. Don’t tell me they’re brilliant and then have them make elemental logic mistakes. Don’t tell me they’re awkward and unathletic and then have them win a fight against bigger, stronger opponents. Don’t tell me they have Phenomenal Cosmic Powers and then have some obstacle they could literally wish away stop them in their tracks. That will turn me right off. But if you want to tell me they’re 18-year-old black belts who speak five languages, shoot at Master level, and can build a working automobile from common household objects, I’m cool with that.

    Oh, and unless you tell me they’re allowed to break the laws of physics, don’t be having 80-pound girls beat up 250-pound men. That bugs me. I don’t care how crazy she is, you let somebody who outmasses her three to one get his hands on her, she’s done.

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