Sunday, September 8, 2013

Unbelievable Characters



Truth is stranger than fiction and there's a good reason for that. While life doesn't always make sense and people do some strange things, often for no apparent reason, whatever they did is a fact and we have no choice but to accept it. Because it's true.

It doesn't work that way in fiction. In fiction, things need to make sense and characters need to behave in ways that are in keeping with their personality, abilities and history. We readers expect the characters in the novels we read to be believable. We need to know them well enough to understand and accept their actions as being something they could or would do given who they are and the circumstances they’re in. Even if their actions are bizarre. Especially if their actions are bizarre.

What happens when I'm reading a novel and one of the characters does something totally “out of character,” something that doesn't ring true given what I know about him or her? What that tells me is that the author hasn’t fully developed the character and/or the author hasn't given me enough background information. When that happens, I stop caring about the character. And, I stop trusting the author. From that point on, if I bother to finish reading the book, I've lost interest because the character isn't believable.


Have you ever lost interest in a book because one of the characters was unbelievable? (Please don't mention specific titles.)

12 comments:

  1. Pat, I agree with you that characters need to be believable. At the same time though, characters should be interestingly different from the norm. They need to capture our attention because they're exceptional, idiosyncratic, and surprising. But you're right: they must come to life as real, believable people. Otherwise the writer's not doing the job.

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    1. I agree 100%, John. Characters need to be believable AND unique. Thanks for stopping by.

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  2. I believe the caring part is more important, Pat. If we don't care what happens to a character it's hard to keep reading about him/her. On the other hand, a good writer can convince us to accept the 'reality' of the most bizarre character.

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    1. True, John. But, if a character does something that is not in keeping with their "character," they're unbelievable to me and I don't care about them anymore.
      Just as an exaggerated example, let's say that an eighty year old woman dives off a cliff to save a drowning child - and manages to do it. That's not a realistic scenario unless the woman was an Olympic swimmer or diver when she was young and she's kept herself in great shape. Which, I suppose, would be possible. But, if that same woman spent most of the book crocheting doilies and complaining about her aches and pains, what she did wouldn't ring true for me and I wouldn't care about her.

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  3. If a character has been portrayed as eccentric or unpredictable throughout a series, I can live with sudden changes, to an extent. But for the most part, most authors have given their characters fairly specific traits. If they suddenly go off on a tangent, it throws me out of the book unless there's a plausible explanation, or at least the expectation of one.
    Marja McGraw

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    1. Marja,
      I couldn't have said it better myself. :)

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  4. What makes me not care, is if the protagonist says she knows she shouldn't do something because it's dangerous, and tells everyone she's not going to do it, but then turns around and does it anyway. I can accept the character doing that once, but when the same character does it several time, then I'm ready to put that novel down. I've actually read a novel like that and could barely finish it, because I no longer cared about her.

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    1. I know what you mean, Evelyn. That's happened to me too and it's frustrating. It ruins what could've been a really good book. I give every book I sit down to read plenty of opportunity to engage me but, when that happens, it's time to, as you wrote, "put that novel down."

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  5. I'm with you on this one! I see so many characters doing stuff either they wouldn't normally do or a real person in their shoes wouldn't do, that it's becoming too much. I'm putting books down because of it. I don't give up on the author right away, though. I try to finish the book, but if the characters are not believable and are all over the place, then the story likely is too. That's when I stop.

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    1. Chris, I've tried to figure out why an author would resort to those tactics in his/her book and the only thing I can come up with is that they're trying to make their character "unique." Unfortunately, they ruin their book in the process. I may eventually read something else they've written but, with all the books out there to chose from, I may not.

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  6. I think you can have your characters do just about anything if you set it up right. The reader can be surprised, but has to believe in the possibility. I think they can do that when you've dropped hints about what's behind a switcheroo. I totally agree that an out-of-the-blue about face with no preparation, even though it happens every day in real life, doesn't make sense in fiction.

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  7. Those are the magic words, Kaye. "If you set it up right." Unfortunately, I've read too many books where the author failed to do that.
    Thanks for stopping by!

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