As authors, we ask our readers to open their minds and believe the unbelievable. Writers of fantasy and sci-fi, paranormal and horror wouldn’t make a penny if readers couldn’t put aside reality and enjoy a good story. The Martian would never have taken off, and we would never know who Luke and Leia and the rest of their universe are, never mind them being household names.
Writers who write in those genres have a flexibility not all of us have–yet they are still held to some kind of realistic expectation. Why do characters behave the way they do? Why are things the way they are? It’s why in comics and huge worlds like Game of Thrones and Star Wars, origin stories are so popular. Knowing why helps us understand.
Writers who write contemporary fiction stories that take place in the real here and now struggle with this, too. More so.
When I wrote All of Nothing, I struggled with what I could get away with and what I couldn’t. If you read my reviews on Goodreads, you’ll see that to some people, I failed. Jax Brooks accidentally shot someone, and I made him suffer for it–for 15 years. I got called out on it. No one would suffer for that long, or to that extent, for 15 years. Or would they? Did I make him suffer for too long? Should I have shortened my timeline?
Raven Grey was homeless for 13 years. That’s a long time to be homeless. I didn’t write her with a mental illness or a drug addiction, so anyone who wasn’t afflicted with something like that . . . would they have let themselves live on the streets for that long?
I asked the reader to believe she would have. I’ve never been homeless, or feel that hopeless. So I guess I truly don’t know if someone would drift through life that way when they had resources at their disposal to help them. But when she did turn her life around, it made it that much more poignant. Did making Raven homeless for so long add to the story, or did the implausibility of her situation take something away?
We’ve all read books that ask the reader to set aside real-life expectations. But how much is too much depends on the reader. I stopped reading Stephanie Plum at number 15 because after so many books, I just didn’t find the character believable anymore. She fumbles around as a bounty hunter suck in a love triangle, and she never changes. After so much time you’d expect her to take self-defense classes, or at the very least, learn how to shoot her gun. But she doesn’t do anything because Janet Evanovich relies on Stephanie’s ineptness as a bounty hunter to give us a laugh. And that’s great. I did enjoy the first fifteen books, and the couple of books that took place between the numbers. But eventually, and this is where real-life comes in, people need to grow and change. Most writers who aren’t writing a series only have one book in which to show us that their characters have changed, grown up, learned a lesson. That Stephanie Plum hasn’t grown, changed, in 15+ books (I think Janet’s up to 25, but I lost interest a long time ago) just makes her character worse.
No one is going to believe that in all the time that goes by, if Stephanie really wanted to take a real stab at being a bounty hunter she wouldn’t try to improve her skills.
But do readers care?
Janet Evanovich is a bestselling author, so I’m guessing most readers are along for the ride and don’t care Stephanie still can’t shoot, still can’t choose a man, and still blows up every car she drives.
I read something once that said as writers, right away we’re asking our readers to believe in a coincidence, an act of fate. Like the man meeting just the right woman at the beginning of a romance. Or a man killing the wrong person at the wrong time at the beginning of a mystery, or a child kidnapped just as a famous detective travels through town on vacation. How was it that Hercule Poirot happened to be on the Orient Express?
Almost every inciting event will be a coincidence, and readers accept that because that’s how a story starts.
But anything you ask her reader to believe after that just builds up until the reader throws the book across the room in disgust because the writer has asked them to believe too much.
Readers aren’t stupid, and you can’t write to them as if they are, yet some writers can get away with asking their readers to believe the impossible.
In 50 Shades of Grey, Christian Grey is a self-made billionaire at twenty-seven. Doing what, who knows. It is possible, but not likely. Not unless you’re working from your mom’s garage creating the next big thing that will replace Facebook.
Anastasia Steele was the same way, professionally. Would she really be an editor at an distinguished publishing house because her boss was fired? Probably not. She majored in English Literature. A publishing degree is a real thing.
How do you know how much is too much?
Unfortunately, you probably won’t know until you get feedback. Hopefully that is in the form of beta reader feedback and not bad reviews.
Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:
- How old are your characters?
If you have a 20-year-old who is running a million-dollar company, ask yourself why. Why is your character 20? Is he a genius? How does his age contribute to the story? Could he be 30? 40? Could he have a different occupation? Are you writing the next Doogie Howser?
- Keep technology in mind.
Today, anyone can know anything with a touch of a few buttons. If you’re keeping your characters in the dark about anything they could find out online, you better have a good, and believable, explanation.
I walked a thin line of that myself in All of Nothing. Jax didn’t know the identity of the person he shot, and Raven’s parents didn’t know the identity of the policeman who killed their son. How did I explain that? The city paid Raven’s parents not to ask questions, and they kept Jax in the dark to help him put the accident behind him. That’s why I put the accident so far in the past. I didn’t need social media interfering in my story. These days, everything is splashed everywhere online. Especially police brutality. Everyone knows everything in an instant. Maybe even with a video. I couldn’t afford that because the whole premise of my book were the facts Jax didn’t know whom he shot, and Raven’s family didn’t know who took her brother’s life. Yeah, this blog post revealed a big spoiler, but did I pull it off? You’ll have to let me know.
- Keep your timeline in mind.
Unless you’re writing the next 24, your characters are probably going to need time. People don’t fall in love in a day. Murders aren’t solved in a day, or even a week. People trapped in a cabin during a blizzard with no food won’t live two weeks without something to eat.
- Because I said so.
If you have to say this, or any derivative of this phrase to someone asking about details of your story, you’re covering up lazy, sloppy writing. Because I said so is for children who don’t want to eat their vegetables. If you have to explain any aspect of your story, you’re doing it wrong. You can’t be over every reader’s shoulder trying to validate and justify all your choices. Your reader may come away from your story loving it or hating it, but they should always understand it.
Human nature is weird. There are things people put with for years and years, and in the same situation, a different person would tolerate it for only a moment.
Sometimes you can get away with it. Soap operas do. After a few years watching Days of our Lives, I finally asked, “If living in Salem was so miserable, why didn’t they just move?” You can’t tell me Bo and Hope wouldn’t finally have found some peace and quiet if they would have moved out of Salem and away from Stefano DiMera.
When I was writing The Years Between Us, I confronted this possibility as well. The whole book depends on blackmail and lies, much in the vein of a soap opera. I had a few beta readers read it and I asked them if it was too much, and all of them said no. I hope it isn’t. I hope the plot is still believable. I hope that what people willing to do for love is enough of a reason to carry the story along. You’ll have to decide.
Your readers will only accept so much. You can’t please everyone, of course, but at some point you are going to have to keep an eye on what is believable and what is not. You’ll have to decide if inconsistencies and discrepancies are intentional or the byproduct of lazy writing. Plot holes are never okay, and explaining why a character did something by saying “She was crazy, that’s why!” isn’t good enough. Even crazy people live on their own plane of reality, and it’s your job as a writer to show us that.
As writers, we are always going to be asking our readers to believe something that has a small chance of happening in real life. But after that initial leap, keep your story grounded in facts, otherwise you are going to lose them.
Fiction is fiction, we read to escape, but your story needs to make sense, or the next thing you know, your bounty hunter will have been on 25 jobs and still won’t know how to shoot a gun.
And that’s just not realistic.
woman with books, canva.com
woman on stability ball, canva.com