I disbelieve your lack of disbelief!
Last night I was looking over an old report I’d written for a client. The manuscript in question had several issues that needed to be fixed, but the one that really jumped out at me was about disbelief: the reader’s disbelief, and the hero’s lack of it.
The book was a science-fiction epic. In the early chapters, the hero has a “matrix moment” wherein he learns that basically everything he thought about his world wasn’t true. The writer did this in a dialogue-heavy exposition scene where the character’s wise mentor explains what’s really going on, complete with alien monsters, spaceships, the whole bit.
The scene failed utterly to capture my interest. The conversation went something like this:
Hero: “Mentor! What’s going on here?”
Mentor: Blah blah infodump, aliens, spaceships, blah blah, danger, danger, conspiracy plot.
Hero: “Oh, ok.”
Not only did the scene fail to capture my interest, the scene completely destroyed the book. Why? Because the hero just went right along with it. He didn’t freak out. He didn’t suspect that his mentor had gone utterly mad. In fact, he didn’t express the slightest bit of skepticism at all, not even a “come on, you’re joking, right?” Nothing.
In failing to make use of stage 1 of the five stages of emotional response , the writer failed to make the scene real for the protagonist. The guy didn’t respond like a real human being would have. And in failing to make the scene emotionally real for the hero, the writer failed to make it intellectually real for me.
In other words, the writer made it impossible for me to suspend my disbelief. Game over.
Disbelief, denial, skepticism—these are all facets of the same incredibly important emotional response, that sensation of discomfort we encounter when we’re presented with information or experiences that clash with what we believe to be true. The core human response is to reject the new and cling to what we have inside.
This is as basic as breathing, and it happens in the blink of an eye.
When you confront a character with something that clashes with what they believe, you have to show some expression of disbelief. The greater the clash, the stronger the disbelief response should be. What is critical to realize is that in these moments, the character is a proxy for the reader. The reader knows how he or she would feel in that situation. The reader’s mind immediately fills with potential counter-arguments against the new information.
In that moment, the reader is waiting for the hero to express similar feelings and explore similar objections. That is, they’re waiting for the writer to prove to them that this unbelievable new information is really true, by overcoming the hero’s natural disbelief. Suspension of disbelief comes from first showing, and then overcoming, the character’s disbelief.
Obviously that won’t happen if you skip the character’s disbelief. What will happen instead are three really bad things:
It reflects badly on your characters. In the above example, it made the hero look like a moron. It made him look like the most gullible simpleton, the most clueless rube to ever survive the birthing process. I had to wonder how this guy manages to get himself dressed in the morning, or avoids poking himself in the eye when he eats with a fork.
It reflects badly on you. You leave readers with the unavoidable perception that you, the writer, are so out of touch with how human beings work that you have no business trying to portray humans on the page. You lose every shred of faith the reader might have had in your ability to tell a story with people in it. That being the case, consider switching to stories about robots and other characters who won’t be expected to act like humans. Give lemmings a try. I hear they’re quite gullible. If you don’t know how to write disbelief, I’ll bet you could write one hell of a lemming protagonist.
You lose the reader. Having destroyed the reader’s estimation of your hero, and having destroyed the reader’s faith in you, what’s left? Nothing at all. There’s nothing left that can drag the reader through another couple of hundred pages of utterly unbelievable fiction. At that point, I would gladly trade your book for a free one-dollar lottery ticket. Even at 147-million-to-one odds, I’d have more faith in that lottery ticket to deliver me something good than your book.
Writing compelling portrayals of emotional responses is obviously a lot more complicated than just adding some disbelief, but it’s a great first step. After all, you can’t stand over the reader’s shoulder and force them to turn pages. You need their cooperation. You need their suspension of disbelief, which you only get by overcoming your characters’ disbelief.
January 29, 2010 22:49 UTC
The unavoidable character
Ask yourself this question about your current work-in-progress: What character is in every scene and on every page? Don’t be so quick to say “none.” I don’t care what kind of book you’re writing. Even an omniscient POV book with tons of head-hopping has a character who is in every scene and on every page.
The writer is inescapably present in every novel. Readers will suspend disbelief about your book, but they never truly forget that they’re reading a story you wrote. Your name is even on the front of it!
This is obviously true for memoirs and novels where a writer intentionally inserts himself or herself into the story. I’m not talking about those. What I’m talking about are the vast majority of novels in which the writer does not intend to be in the story.
You are anyway.
The question then becomes, does your writing minimize your own presence on the page? Generally speaking, the better a writer is the more invisible he or she remains to the reader. When the reader becomes aware of you, you’ve pulled them out of the story. That’s never a good thing.
In working with my clients’ novels, I’ve put together a list of common and not-so-common ways that writers reveal themselves to readers. Strive to avoid these:
So-called “author intrusion” is when a writer inserts something into the book which doesn’t feel like it fits. This can happen in narrative, or through dialogue. But usually it comes in the form of an opinion on an emotionally or politically charged subject that isn’t directly attributable to any character in the scene, and is often written in a style that seems directed toward the reader. For example:
The phone dropped from Susan’s hand, clattering on the kitchen floor. She gripped the countertop for support. John was dead, found hanging from a light fixture in his apartment. Suicide is a mortal sin. It’s wrong to kill yourself, and no one should ever do that. Susan squeezed her eyes shut, but tears leaked out anyway.
Here, the writer reveals his own opinions about suicide, reveals his religious beliefs, and tosses in a little morality lecture as a bonus. The reader may well agree with the sentiment, but it has no place in the story unless that thought belongs to one of the book’s actual characters. If it’s just your opinion, leave it out.
When readers run into something like this, it’s like you’re waving yourself in their face. “Yoo hoo, writer speaking! Here I am!” Furthermore, it’s impossible for the reader not to be aware of you trying to tell them what to think. Nobody likes that. Even if they agree with you it leaves them feeling negatively towards you.
It is very easy to make mistakes in one’s story that undermine your own credibility as a writer, that sabotage the reader’s belief in you as a person who has any business writing a novel. If readers stop believing in you, they’ll stop caring about the story and probably stop reading. At the very least you make it much more difficult for them to continue suspending their disbelief. There are three main credibility issues I see in my clients’ work:
Plot holes. If the cops take a character’s gun away in chapter three, but then the character fires the gun in chapter 4 without first having gotten it back, that’s a plot hole. It’s a logical inconsistency within the structure of your story, and what it tells readers is that you don’t know your own story well enough to tell it right. That being the case, what confidence can a reader have that the rest of the story is going to be worth reading?
Factual errors. Similar to plot holes, when your characters make mistakes about verifiable facts it tells the reader that you are either lazy or ill-informed yourself. Again, it conveys the message that you haven’t any business writing a novel, or that you haven’t put as much work into the novel as you should have.
One or two of these, when they’re small and on facts that don’t matter much to the plot, can be tolerated. Nobody’s really going to care all that much if you, say, refer to the “nine graceful arcs atop the Chrysler Building,” when in fact there are only eight. As long as you’re not screwing up minor details all over the place, it’s tolerable.
What isn’t tolerable is to make mistakes about facts that matter to the plot, or which are well known and iconic in the culture at large. For example, misplacing the Hoover Dam from the Colorado River to the Mississippi, or accidentally referring to 1973 as “the year Kennedy was assassinated.”
Bad or missing emotional responses. In my opinion, these are the worst. These are when your characters fail to react in emotionally appropriate ways to the events they face, or when emotional responses that are in the book haven’t been well supported by the preceding narrative.
For example, if your main character receives a call in the middle of his high-stakes business negotiation informing him that his mother has died unexpectedly, yet he carries on with the negotiation as though nothing happened, readers aren’t going to believe that for a second. Similarly, romance sub-plots where a character seems to be madly attracted to another for no discernable reason just aren’t credible. That latter one is one I see way too much of, and for some reason it seems to be an especially common problem for writers of thrillers.
These mistakes undermines your credibility as a writer because they make readers believe that you just don’t understand how real people think, feel, and react. If that’s the case, you really don’t have any business writing a novel that has any people in it. If that’s the case, consider writing Sci-Fi about aliens with wholly different mentalities, for whom dispassion towards their mothers and unmotivated romance are the norm. Or about robots. Robots are good.
If you don’t understand people, you shouldn’t write about them. That’s why this is the worst thing you can do for your own credibility.
Plot holes and factual errors are relatively easy to fix. Any decent editor can help you catch those, as can your writing group or people on internet critique websites. But if your characters don’t act like real people, there’s not much that can be done except to write the whole thing over.
Portraying yourself as an unsavory person
To enjoy your book, readers have to like you. At the very least, they have to be indifferent to you. Their opinion of you, if any, will prejudice them towards or against your book. Thus, your book should avoid making readers feel you are a loathsome human being, or they’re going to have a hard time liking it. How do writers betray themselves like that? Here are two examples.
One client’s characterization of the female characters in his book consisted of, without exception, descriptions their physical assets. Especially their breasts. I could really tell he was a breast man. There wasn’t much else in terms of characterization for these women. As the book progressed, this pattern left me with the feeling that the client wasn’t merely a fan of the female bosom, but was in fact a male chauvinist. The men in his book had goals, aspirations, and even feelings. But the women were little more than glorified furniture. It didn’t leave me feeling good about the client as a person.
Another client had a main character who—and to avoid the threat of being sued for libel I’ll be particularly vague here—did some very, very bad things. However, the book was written with enough author intrusion that I couldn’t escape the suspicion that my client was writing from experience. A little bit of internet research only deepened that suspicion. I quit the project, tore up the client’s check, and I hope never to hear from that client again.
Think about that: I was being paid to read the book, and I couldn’t do it because of my opinion of the writer. The client showed enough of him/herself on the page that every fiber of my being was screaming “get away from this client!” So I did. I wanted nothing to do with any of it.
It’s one thing to “write what you know,” as the saying goes. But when what you know would make a person think you belong behind bars, consider writing about something else. I’m just saying.
You are in your book
Like it or not, you are a character in your book if for no other reason than readers never fully forget they’re reading a story that was written by a person. The best you can do is to keep yourself as invisible as possible by avoiding the mistakes I’ve described here.
January 15, 2010 20:32 UTC
The five stages of grief
There’s nothing worse than a book where the characters simply don’t act like real people. I’m not talking about action books where ninja-like characters with finely honed skills fly from building-top to building-top as casually as if they were stepping out to pick up the morning paper. What I’m talking about are books where the characters do not act in emotionally credible ways.
We’ve all seen this. The classic example (which is one reason why I titled this article “The Five Stages of Grief") is when a one character dies and a surviving character fails to grieve appropriately. Obviously, the level of grief that is appropriate will vary depending on the relationship the writer has created between those two characters. But all too often writers simply omit entirely any kind of natural and expected emotional response.
Emotional credibility is key to creating believable characters.
It’s not just about grief, although grief is an obvious and dramatic case. You have to do this everywhere. In every situation in your whole novel, your characters must display credible emotional responses, or the whole book is going to fall flat.
Most of us are familiar with the psychological concept of “The Five Stages of Grief.” It is a pattern, a predictable sequence, of emotional responses that normal human beings go through when confronted with tragedy. The other reason I titled this article “The Five Stages of Grief” (and yes, I’m going to repeat that phrase a lot, because you need to learn it) is because those stages are a road map for producing emotional credibility in your scenes, and thus, creating believable characters.
So what are the Five Stages of Grief? Whole books have been written to answer that question, but briefly:
Denial: Simple, literal disbelief that the tragedy, whatever it is, is real. Denial is disbelief even in the face of hard evidence. Nobody wants to have a tragedy happen to them or to a loved one, so the immediate emotional response is simply to deny it. This isn’t rational, but it’s what normal human beings do.
Anger: After getting past denial, once a person confronts the ugly fact that the tragedy is real, comes anger. Simple ire and rage that this tragedy should have happened at all, or often, that it has happened to them personally.
Bargaining: Once the anger passes, bargaining is the natural inclination to try to strike a deal with whatever authority figure is relevant to the tragedy, be it God, a physician, a policeman, an insurance adjuster, whoever. After anger, people will try to negotiate their way out of the tragedy in one way or another. This, I must add, should almost always prove to be a futile exercise.
Depression: Denial didn’t work; the tragedy didn’t go away by ignoring it. Anger didn’t work; the tragedy can’t be scared off. Bargaining was a flop; what’s done is done. With all strategies for un-doing the tragedy exhausted, the natural response is to be sad about it. This can range from being mildly bummed out to full-blown clinical depression, but this is what comes next.
Acceptance: Finally, when all is said and done, a person moves to acceptance. The person comes to a place where they may not be happy about the tragedy, but they’ve accepted the immutable reality of it and have decided to move on with their lives. This is when the person starts to act again, to really live again, by making the best of their situation.
That’s your road map. Whenever your characters are faced with tragedy, we’d better see them exhibit those emotional responses, or we’re going to have an awfully hard time believing in them as real people.
I wish this psychological road map wasn’t labeled with the word “grief,” because that implies that the road map only applies when characters face truly dire, truly tragic situations. Although I’ve used the word “tragedy” in the above descriptions, the truth is that the five stages apply to all kinds of tragedies, large or small. Although this model of emotional response originated through studies of people faced with terminal illness and other truly life-changing situations, where serious grief is in play, the road map applies everwhere.
As writers, we need to learn to generalize this framework. Call it “The Five Stages of Misfortune” if it helps, but understand that this model applies at all scales. On a grand scale, you could write a five-book epic about a character learning to come to terms with a true tragedy, devoting a whole book to that person’s processing of each stage. On a small scale, the whole five-stage drama can flash by in a couple of paragraphs, for calamities that are much less consequential to the character’s life.
Depending on the situation, you have a lot of leeway with the five stages. The stages don’t always come strictly one after the other. They often overlap. Sometimes you can skip a stage. But by and large, we should see hints of all five as the ripples that spread from each misfortune you subject your characters to.
Let’s take a quick example of how, even in a very short scene or very brief moment from a story, you can convey all five stages. Watch how it lends emotional credibility to the scene, and how you find yourself empathizing with the character. Let us set this scene in a Chicago tenement house, in the early years of the 20th century, in a small, dark, drafty, and dirty apartment on the fourth floor. In this scene, a young husband nervously awaits the birth of his first child, pacing outside the bedroom where the midwife is practicing her craft.
“Gregor!” the midwife yelled from the bedroom. “I need towels. Clean ones!”
“Yes, alright,” Gregor called back. He rushed down the apartment’s narrow hallway to the linen cupboard. He flung open the doors. There were no towels.
No, we can’t be out of towels now! He shoved aside rags and bars of soap, peering into dark corners, finding nothing.
“Damn and blast,” Gregor swore under his breath. He dashed to the apartment’s small bathroom. Perhaps there were some in the laundry basket that had yet to be put away. Please, God, let there be some. Pulling a wrinkled work shirt out of the basket, he held it quickly to his nose. It stank of sweat and of the slaughterhouse. He threw the shirt back; if there were any towels buried under his dirty laundry, they were far from clean.
“Gregor!” the midwife called again.
“I’m looking!” he shouted back. If my child dies for want of a towel— Gregor shoved the thought aside and dashed out again towards the front door. He was across the hall in an instant, pounding furiously on the neighbors’ door. “Anna, Peter, I need towels!”
It’s not a long scene, but we see all five stages. Note, too, that the tragedy is very simple: no towels. It’s very minor on the grand scheme of things, but it still demands a credible emotional response from the character, because for him the stakes are high. As far as he knows, his child’s life may depend on his ability to provide clean towels. If less was at stake—say, if the baby had already been born and the midwife only wanted towels so she could clean up the mess—Gregor’s reactions would be commensurately smaller.
Gregor’s short bit of inner monologue after opening the linen cupboard reflects denial, that brief feeling of “What? How can we be out of towels now, of all times?” He mutters a brief curse, betraying his anger and frustration at the situation. He thinks of an alternative, one he knows to be a long shot and bargains with God to let there be clean towels in the laundry basket. Of course, there aren’t. All his immediate strategies for making this no-towels tragedy go away have failed, pushing him into a moment of depression as he briefly contemplates what’s at stake, implying to himself and to the reader how sad the situation might turn out to be. But there’s no time to dwell on what might happen. No, Gregor must act. In noveling terms, he must drive the scene. He accepts the situation, and makes the best of it by banging on the neighbors’ door for help.
As you write, and especially as you edit, I want you to consider the dramatic moments in your story. Consider the times when you let something bad—be it big or small—happen to your characters, and ask yourself whether you have shown credible emotional responses in every case.
Remember, every story moves forward through characters overcoming obstacles, and on some level every obstacle is an instance of something bad happening to the character. Every single one is an opportunity to show your characters’ personalities, by giving them appropriate five-stage emotional responses to those obstacles.
August 07, 2009 22:07 UTC
For older posts, see archive links in the sidebar