Suspending disbelief

divergentHave you ever put down a book because you thought the story-world was just too implausible? I suspect not many. But I am sure there are books you may have put down because you thought they were just plain boring. No one likes mundane and boring. Readers want excitement.

Good writers like Veronica Roth and Suzanne Collins are adept at taking their readers to imaginary worlds where for a time the reader is prepared to suspend their disbelief about the story-world to follow the main character’s story.

Of course, a lot depends on genre. Readers of Fantasy are more likely to accept the implausible: worlds of magic, dragons and mythical characters. But they are not the only ones to suspend disbelief. Science Fiction readers often accept future worlds with faster-than-light travel, aliens and time travel, even though some of the science underlying these stories may seem improbable. And Horror readers accept worlds of vampires, were wolves, and zombies.

But even putting aside the genres of Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Horror, to some extent all fiction writers tease the reader into suspending disbelief about some aspects of the story. Even Thrillers and Romance novells may be based around an improbable premise or serendipity. It’s a matter of degree.

So why are readers so easily seduced to suspend their understanding of reality? Curiousity plays a part. But it’s also because the reader wants to escape from their mundane ordinary world to the experience the thrills and emotions of the main character’s story. The more extreme the story-world, the more extreme the stakes at risk, the greater is the emotional intensity.

Have you ever shed a tear or felt a dry throat during a movie or book? It’s normal. Our emotional response to a movie or book doesn’t distinguish between reality and fiction. The emotional response is the same. And good writers can induce this.

So how do writers create these worlds and how do they get us as readers to believe in them? I think the answer to this question isn’t in the way these worlds are described; although building a consistent world is an important feature. It is in the way the characters in the story are developed. They must remain real human beings with strong desires and needs, even if the characters themselves are not necessarily human. They may be vampires, elves or robots, but they must have some strong human traits.

Take Veronica Roth’s Divergent. The world Roth creates is unbelievably strange world where society is split into factions that determine their roles in society. It seems a very impausible world. Yet the main character, Tris, is a strong and a very likeable character that the reader can identify with and root for. The world of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games is also weird and impausible, with young children sent to their deaths at a games for sport to satisfy the corrupt Capital. But the character of Katniss Everdeen is strong and caring. Perhaps the contrast between the main characters and extreme setting is one of the key attributes of this type of dystopian fiction.

One writer once said all stories are about life and death; not necessarily physical death, it can be about psychological, or emotional death. But stories that are not about something important to the main character’s well-being of those he/she cares for are destined to failure. I’m sure that’s right. No one wants boring.

The Darkest Moment

Stories are all about conflict and transformation. If the main character in your story can achieve all of his/her desires without any struggle at all, then it wouldn’t be much of a story. It is therefore the job of the writer to make things difficult for the hero/heroine. One writer likened this to getting your main character stuck up a tree and then throwing rocks at them. As readers, we tend to love an underdog: someone who succeeds in the face of adversity. Therefore, as writers, it is our job to make sure our main characters suffer, so they can earn the success that they truly deserve.

Often the main character also has to learn something important about themselves before they can take that final step to success. If you are familiar with the Three Act Structure, you will know that this epiphany moment usually occurs following the main character’s darkest moment at the end of the second act. The darkest moment is that time when all seems lost and our hero/heroine is in the depths of despair. It is at this point where they find something new about themselves, which gives them the courage and inspiration to go on.

Even if you don’t believe in a three act structure, the darkest moment is usually recognisable story beat in most successful stories. It is the emotional darkness before the dawn of success. Without it there is little emotional contrast. Some writers talk about two stories: the outer story we associate with the plot line and the inner story about the change or transformation of the main character during the course of the story. Another term often used is the character arc.

Of course, not all stories are about main characters that change for the better. Some may change for the worse, or they may refuse change despite everything. It depends on the type of story you are writing. In an action-driven story, the inner story may seem  unimportant compared to the outer storyline. But it’s still an important component. It’s just more subtle. That’s because  all stories are about characters; and if you want your reader to empathise with those characters, you need to understand the character’s inner story. It is the character’s inner story that carries the moral theme of the story (for example, good will overcome evil, love conquers all, freedom is worth fighting for, family is important  etc.). And as I have said in an earlier blog, without at least one theme you have no story.

Making the main character likeable

All great books and movies seem to have a great lead character that the reader or audience can identify with and root for. How do authors and screenwriters do it? Think about the books and movies you love. What aspects of the lead character’s character did you like, and what attracted you to them? Were they:

• Courageous / heroic
• Feisty/adventurous/ambitious
• Steadfast/resolute/tenacious
• Unpretentious/modest
• Selfless/Caring
• Humorous

Probably not all these at once; or at least not when you first met them at the start of the story. No one is perfect, and perfect lead characters are, well, frankly boring. Usually at the start of a good story the character has some flaw that they will need to overcome to fulfil themselves, and reach the story goal. The hero might be reckless, or arrogant, or juvenile; the heroine might be self-centred, weak or easily led. They need to learn what’s important during the course of the story. This is character arc: the change a character goes through in the course of the story. Think of Hans Solo the arrogant space pirate that only thinks of himself. Except of course at the end where he comes to the aid of Luke Skywalker. Think of Luke Skywalker and his development from a farm boy to Jedi knight.

In some cases, we may only see the lead character’s true self when he/she is finally put to the test during the later stages of the story. There may well be glimpses of the true character during the course of the story; but it is only in the final test do we discover who they really are.

Not all main characters necessarily change. James Bond, John McClane, Jack Reacher, Harry Potter, Robert Langdon are all pretty much the same character from story to story. Serial stories may therefore be the exception as the story has to continue beyond the current storyline.

In other cases, it might not be the lead character that changes; but someone else close to the character. In “Back to the Future” (one of my all-time favourite movies), it is Marty’s father that changes. There are therefore no rules about character arc.

In my previous blog, I wrote about how character and plot are interwoven. Character is revealed by the actions the lead character makes. Blake Snyder, in ‘Save the Cat’, talks about the importance of the ‘save the cat’ scene. He says it’s a scene at the beginning of the movie where the hero does something small – like saving a cat – that defines who he is and makes the audience like him. Snyder says this scene is less common in movies these days. He quotes the example of Lara Croft 2, which in spite of a big budget didn’t resonate at the box office. His explanation was that the Lara Croft character, although ‘cool’, was ‘cold and humourless’. What she needed to do was something kind – a ‘save the cat’ scene.

Perhaps a good example of actually ‘saving the cat’ is the scene from Alien, where Ripley goes back to save the ship’s cat. Although the scene is at the end of the movie it has a similar effect. Ripley has a heart after all. In Aliens 2, she goes on better trying to save a little girl.

Other more dramatic examples might be Katniss’s action to volunteer for the Hunger Games to save her younger sister. (That pretty much trumps saving a mere moggy).
Heros and heroines are not defined by how they look or what they say. They are defined by the heroic actions they carry out. Some of these actions might be quite small at the start of the story, but they give us a glimpse of what is to come.

Plot and character – the chemistry

So what type of stories do you write: character-driven or action-driven? When thinking about your story ideas, do you start by imagining an interesting character, or do you start with some interesting ‘what if’ events and then consider the character?

It doesn’t really matter where you start, but you need both character and plot to make an interesting story. They are inseparable. How is a character going to reveal his character – only by how he/she responds to events, and by the decisions he/she takes which in turn affects future events. Plot and character are intertwined.

A great character with nothing to do doesn’t make an interesting story. Jack Reacher or James Bond without bad guys to go after is a pretty boring story. A series of events, like World War II doesn’t make a story. A story about a group of soldiers in a particular action in World War II and how they react in a particular situation may well be a great story.

The chemistry between character and plot is one of the key ingredients of a story. They must fit snugly together. Take the Hunger Games – a brutal plot where children are put into an arena to kill each other, and Katnis a strong willed heroine who volunteers to take her sister’s place in the arena. The story wouldn’t have worked without her. What if Brigette Jones was playing the lead in Hunger Games instead? It wouldn’t work. Putting it another way – the characteristics of the lead character are defined by the requirements of the plot.

The same is true in stories that are not action orientated. Katnis wouldn’t have made a great lead in Briget Jones’ Diaries, or Never Been Kissed. Would Erin Brockovich been the same without the feisty character played by Julia Roberts?

The problem with many ‘how to’ books on writing (and I’ve read a lot) is that they look at the writing process as something that can be broken down into components that can be studied separately: character, plot, descriptions, dialogue etc. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learnt a lot from these books, particularly about avoiding those basic newbie mistakes. But there are some aspects of writing that come down to pure chemistry: and plot and character are two important components. You know when you’ve got it right; and you know when it doesn’t work. But it’s hard to put your finger on it. It’s called ‘chemistry’.