Saturday, January 14, 2012

Truth IS Stranger than Fiction

In real life, when we hear of someone doing something bizarre or out of character, we often wonder, “What on earth possessed him to do that?” And, if we know the person, we might even think “That’s not like him.” But, since we know that he did it, we have no choice but to shrug our shoulders, shake our heads, accept it and move on. It happened; it’s a fact. In real life.
In fiction, writers don’t have that luxury. If one of our characters behaves in what would be considered an irrational manner, our readers aren’t going to accept it unless they know what motivated our character to do it. We have to keep each of our characters “in character.” We want our readers to identify with them or, at the very least, to see them as believable, fallible human beings and we know that readers will tend to judge our characters based on their own perceptions of what their behavior should be. I’ll use Ann, the main character in Mixed Messages, as an example.
Ann is married to David and they have two young children. David is an alcoholic who is drinking heavily, gambling and staying out all night. Ann has had to assume all of the responsibility for raising their children because David is physically and emotionally unavailable most of the time. In spite of Ann’s best efforts, the marriage continues to deteriorate. David is often verbally abusive and every conversation turns into an argument. They haven’t been intimate for awhile; the only time he seems to want her is when he’s drunk. She finally builds up the courage and attempts to seduce him but he rejects her, leaving her feeling undesirable and humiliated.
When you read that paragraph, what did you think? Did you wonder why Ann doesn’t leave David? Did you lose respect for her because, obviously, she lacks the gumption to get out of an unhealthy relationship? Did you project your own feelings onto Ann, thinking I would never tolerate that? That you would take the children and leave?
But what if you knew what motivates Ann to do whatever she can to “fix” her marriage and preserve her family? What if you knew that she lost both of her parents when she was nine years old and her grandmother raised her and her sister, Marnie? That, Nana passed away when Ann was eighteen and Marnie moved out of state to go to law school, leaving Ann alone? And that, when Ann met and fell in love with David and for most of their marriage, he was a sweet, kind man, a wonderful husband and father? Does Ann’s behavior make sense now? Do you understand why her family is so important to her? Are you pulling for her? Do you hope that, somehow, everything works out?
And then there’s David and the other characters in the novel. What motivates them to behave the way they do? Well, you’ll have to read Mixed Messages to find out.


  1. Very good post, Patricia. We tend to judge people in real life, even though we don't know all the facts. At least in fiction we can make the facts known.

  2. Absolutely true, Marja! And, we can create the reality we want to create. Unfortunately, that's not the way it works in real life!

  3. Very true. My critics always say "she wouldn't do that."

    Of course she would! She just did it!

  4. Dac,
    I know exactly what you mean, which is the reason we need to let our readers in on WHY our characters do what they do.

  5. I like this very much, Patricia, and will add it to my "characterization" file for when I teach. There are so many variables, as we writers all know. The background you give on Ann could be so different, or you could give us five different backgrounds. Ah, the wonder of writing fiction!

  6. Thanks, Eileen! That's one of the reasons I love fiction - so many possibilities!

  7. Actually, the label for this is "emotional logic."

    I have taught at the police writers conference that, although the strangest things happen in real life, sometimes you just have to give it up for story. In my novel, "Fools Rush In," the real-life drug dealer believed he was the god Thor (this was before the movie came out). The detail was juicy, but I knew I'd lose all credibility with readers if I'd put that in the novel! It killed me, but I had to let it go.

  8. Sunny,
    I'd never heard the term "emotional logic" before but it makes sense. If we lose credibility with our readers, we're done!

  9. People often do act out of character. The problem is readers often won't accept it in fiction--unless we can convince them it's feasible.
    Good stuff, Patricia.

  10. Thanks, John.
    I have to laugh when I read the last line of this post, which I wrote BEFORE I got the news yesterday that my novel had been accepted for publication. I guess it's an example of "Build it and they will come."