I recently completed my first novel, U Got to Have U Some Fun, and after sending out numerous copies for friends, family, and beta groups to review, I am left chewing on a comment about one of my characters—a 13 year old with a prosthetic leg who is wise beyond his years because of a broken home, work-o-holic father, and the accident that cost him his leg.
“Loved the book,” everyone said. The average star rating is 4.5 stars.
But, one reader said she found Garrett too grown-up for his age and suggested I make him 14 or 15.
“Thanks for the feedback,” I said.
We have all heard the armchair and professional critics and interviewers say the same thing at one time or another: “Such-and-such has an extreme talent and feel for creating believable characters.”
What does that mean?
If it means an author created a character who, throughout the story:
- acts and talks in a manner fitting to their environment within that story and
- makes decisions true to the life that character represents and
- it comes across to the reader in a way that said reader isn’t constantly scrunching their lips into the side of their cheeks and reluctantly turning pages with scowling eyes,
…then I would agree the author conjured a believable character.
Why then do horror movies sell so well when the college girl, alone in the sorority house and knowing there is a killer loose in the town, goes upstairs and opens the very door where she heard a horrible noise instead of fleeing the house?
I guess because that kind of character used in that manner is believable because, ironically, it’s believable in that genre and context to do the unbelievable (and stupid) thing.
“Boo!” The masked man chops college girls head off. Audience jumps and says, “Never saw that one coming.”
Now, here is ‘my two cents.’ And as the so-named title of my blog clearly implies, this is just my opinion.
Was the young boy in The Sixth Sense believable for his age?
Or how about the boy character acting alongside Kevin Spacey in Pay It Forward?
All the characters in The Lord of the Flies?
I say what makes Garrett’s actions believable for his age are all the adversities I (the author) have developed into his character, mainly through backstory. But here is the thing, and I don’t think a lot of readers will recognize this—many readers aren’t worldly enough to recognize genuine characters directly modeled after real life people, or at least bits and pieces of real people.
All literary fiction authors ask themselves at one time or another, “Is my novel true, honest, technically accurate, and yes, believable.”
After all, literary fiction is different than say…science fiction or romance novels. I don’t mean to take away from those genre writers but, let’s face it, science fiction writing affords the author a starting canvas with virtually no rules or creative perimeters—no reader can say, “Well, that would never happen on planet Platekilt when the Ubliots invaded.” But in sci-fi and romance novels, if the story is entertaining enough, the reader usually forgives any disbelief due to genre leniency.
In a way…really good literary fiction isn’t purely fictitious at all.
If an author created two characters who, at age 13, one was getting drunk at Hollywood night clubs and the other was singing duets with Stevie Wonder in his living room, would the reader find those characters believable? Now what if I told you those two characters were loosely modeled after Drew Barrymore and Michael Jackson?
There are two kinds of character believability—technical and reader relatable.
Technical: Fifty pages in, would such and such a character say that? Would that character do that? Is that character doing or saying something contradictory to how the author previously developed them? If Jack was against exercising and then the author had Jack reading a Men’s Bodybuilding magazine in a bookstore without giving plausible explanation for why Jack was reading a magazine about bodybuilding, then that is technically not believable. If an author created a character that would say “aw shucks” and then had them say “holy shit” out of the blue, they are not being honest with the rules they designed for that character. Of course, those rules can always be broken, but in order to get away with it, the author must reasonably justify why they are breaking the rules.
Now…I suspect reader-related character-believability might be a slightly sensitive topic for some of you. I will do my best to not ruffle any feathers.
Sometimes, some readers just aren’t worldly enough to find a character believable. Did that sting? Sorry. And for those of you who are saying, “I have been to 30 different countries in my lifetime.” Great! But that doesn’t make you worldly if you stayed at a Ritz-Carlton every time you ventured out into the big bad world.
Reader: Have you ever talked to a gang member on their home turf in south central LA? Ever spend the night in a back ally with a homeless person just to see what it’s like for them? How about comforting a terminal Aids patient in a hospital ward because they don’t have any friends or family to come visit? Really good novel writers (and actors) do these things so we can incorporate believability into our craft. It’s a novelist’s job to expose the reader to an environment, situation, and characters that the reader previously had never known, while driving a believable, entertaining story within the guidelines of genre and the authors set rules. A ride…so to speak.
I am not saying readers need to hang out in Compton, CA, or the seediest section of Detroit in order to sharpen their novel reading skills. Let us authors do that work for you. Nobody wants to go fight in a bloody war, but we all like reading about one or watching a movie about it, and if you have never been to war, then you certainly don’t have the right or knowledge to judge the actions or speech of a war story character.
See what I’m saying? Don’t judge if you have never met a person in real life like one an author has introduced you to…not if the relationship you have with that character throughout the story is technically believable.
In an age of home-schooling, over hand sanitized, politically correct, gluten free, phone hypnotized texters, the best novelists are out there looking people in the eye, tasting our own blood, not showering for a day or two, eating wild fruit without washing it or our hands, and just plain anything it takes to gather the necessary tools to create unique, believable characters. Reader: Your job is to sit back, relax, trust the writer, and enjoy.
And to the less worldly reader….if Forrest Gump were speaking to you about this, he might say, “Each one of us is unique and special, like a variety of chocolates in a great big box. Both in a novel and in real life, you might not realize how unique and special…not unless you dare take a bite.”
And my character, Garrett? If changing his age by one or two years would have made him more believable to the reader, then did the reader actually consider his backstory at all? If one or two years would have made the difference, why didn’t his family problems, the harrowing accident that took his leg, and what he went through to cope and adjust make the difference?
I’ve met him twice before. Once as I fabricated him in my story, and once (parts of anyway) in real life. If done properly, the line between whether a character is just a character or if the reader feels that character could actually be “real” should be as thin as the difference between fiction and reality. If we authors leave the reader with that impression…we’ve done our jobs. If readers open their minds to the possibilities beyond their own life experiences, then they will enjoy the ride that much more.
Readers: Please keep reading! We authors desperately need you. Thank you.
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One thought on “To Believe or Not To Believe?”
My kids are 12, 8, and 6 and are more “worldly” than most kids at that age..life experiences change, mature, direct and guide you..it’s a deep personal experience and journey of really knowing yourself..some are not on the same frequency, therefore will never “get it”..love this!