I discovered today that an acquaintance on Facebook is a cop. He talked about so often seeing the worst in people (and sometimes the best), and how he sometimes pulled from his experiences in real life for his writing. Those times, however, are not always believed by his readers. I’ve had my moments of that; one extra-story conversation even stuck in my brain as “Oh, I so didn’t want to know people really did that to each other. ” But conversations to finish selling the story to a reader don’t very much count. A copy of the author does not come shrink-wrapped with each sale. If you are an author, you’ve heard it before: Reality is no excuse in fiction.
In truth, I think you can sell just about anything in fiction, but sometimes that means baby steps leading the reader. They have to feel they know or understand why, and sometimes that takes more work. I remember watching the pilot episode of the Star Gate TV series. Because it was a cable show, the network got in on the act for season three and aired it before seasons one or two, so I was already hooked by the pilot (ah, the old days when you watched what TV fed you in the order the stations fed it). I remember thinking Teal’c, the bad guy’s right hand-man, would NEVER have actually helped our heros and switched sides. He was too well situated under his “god.” Then five or six seasons later, they did a Tilk back story…
Oh! I totally get it now! Of course it happened that way! Really, I had told my husband after the first episode it was unjustifiable, and now I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid.
When we use our experience to tell our stories, we have to remember that life isn’t like a story in a way that matters on this point; we don’t always get to know what brought all the players to the table of that incident we pull from. In life, we know that happens. We deal with it every day. You curse the person who cuts you off on the freeway as a jerk. Now imagine that the person cut you off on the free way because his wife is screaming in labor. That makes their cutting you off a little more understandable and palatable. My husband gets worked up about these things. I tell him to relax and be glad he’s not the driver of the offending vehicle because the options are the other driver is either a jerk or having an emergency. Either way aren’t you glad you aren’t that person?
I think of this type of exercise that I do in day to day life, trying to imagine what would bring people to the point I intersect with them, as part of practicing creating characters. In a story, the reader has to understand where the characters are coming from, even if it is shorthanded in a quick, stereotypic way. The more outside the norm your situation is for any given reader, the more that reader needs to buy into it. So if an enemy soldier comes up in your fantasy story and takes a swing at your hero in battle, you’ve told us all we need to know to believe that character’s actions. But if that same character walks up to our hero in the middle of a bloody fray and puts his sword at the hero’s feet, now we need to know more to believe.
So next time you hear readers say they don’t believe one of your characters would do that and you absolutely know they would, it means you have a little more set up to do. Give them enough reason to drink the Kool-Aid.