I’ve been pondering this idea for awhile, and my blog friends Jay and Brizzlelass both touched on it recently:  Believability of characters.

Do characters in fiction need to be believable?

I struggle with this concept for a variety of reasons.  First off, what is believable?  In the purposes of fiction writing, how do we define believable?  Is it when a character acts like the majority of people would in any given situation?  And if that is the answer, then what about the people who are in the minority of a situation?  Is their story not worth being told because they are not the “norm”?  But more to the point, isn’t the story of the person in the minority the one worth telling?  Isn’t the story of the character who is outside the box the one that is more interesting?  To write something where everyone behaves “normally” is not really a story.

Now that I’m in my second writing class, I have noticed that many people fictionalize real events from personal experience.  I think this is cathartic and interesting.  What’s wrong with retelling personal experience?  Nothing, except the fact that a bunch of readers will say “This would never happen in real life”.  And the person who wrote the story is saying “Yes it could happen cause it did.  Character X actually said that.  Character Y actually did that.” Is truth not believable?  Are we uncomfortable reading about how people actually treat one another? Does the reality of humans really make us want to become an ostrich?

Here’s my take.  I am fine with something not being believable if it makes sense with how the character has been described.  I will base my decision based on how the particular character has been portrayed.  A main character often shows a change throughout the course of a work- I think of it more as, did the way this character changed from beginning to end make sense.  Based on what the author has provided us, does it seem plausible.  See, that’s where I think the difference it:  has an author written the bones of a character where what the character says and does make sense.  To me it’s not a particular conversation or event: it’s the character from page one to page 250.  Does the arc of a character and the characters development make sense.  Do interactions between characters make sense based on what is given to us, not based on any preconceived notions we bring into the book.

I know you’re now having a hard time believing what I wrote because it makes no sense…

To completely screw up your minds, let’s think about the popularity of dystopian books.  Are people drawn to writing this genre simply because they think they can write totally bizarre things and no one will question it, because, after all, it’s DYSTOPIAN.  It this just a way to get around people saying “That character would never say that”?  Is it a way to get around people saying “That’s not believable?”

And what about the people who say something is predictable. If you make your characters “believable” to the norm, wouldn’t the situations play out “predictably”? Would there all of a sudden be a twist? Believable leads to predictable.

So my literate friends:  what do you think?

To believe or not to believe.  That is the question.

And does it matter?

Advertisements

54 thoughts on “Do You Believe?

  1. In college, I was in a Creative Writing course and I wrote a submission which included an interaction between one of the MCs and a random stranger in the street. My teacher put a big X through it saying that it was not realistic… Except, I had simply written down an interaction that I witnessed myself between my friend and that stranger just two weeks before!

    My point being, I learnt that in fiction, writers should be allowed to push the boundaries or believability once it works within the confines of the world and characters they have created themselves. I also learnt that my teacher was an idiot 😉
    One of my pet peeves is reading reviews where the reviewer goes off on a tangent about the “lack of believability” of a storyline. At the end of the day, we all know truth is often stranger than fiction…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I know! Who is to say what is actually believable!! I think we should be pushing boundaries and accept that there are all different ways to think about something, and act. And what happened in class.. I get that. You rewrote an exchange and people criticize it. I don’t get that

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Your teachers shouldn’t criticize. That’s not helpful. I can see if they make suggestions on how to expand dialogue or ask you how to better “show rather than tell”, but to discount believability is wrong. Anything can be believeable, that’s subjective. Now, there are ways to make characters more sympathetic or more believable (such as emotions and descriptions like body movements that Show emotions. But, a character is like a painting or a sculpture. It becomes more realistic the longer you attend to the details. You are there to learn not to be discouraged or discounted.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Writers who wish to get published and are not just writing for themselves either have to accept criticism (because there will always be some, unless no one reads it), grow a thicker skin, or live in a protected bubble. A teacher has to offer criticism or what’s the point of taking the class?
        Anyone who has ever read the comments on goodreads, which can vary widely, quickly acknowledges all of the different opinions. Is one person’s opinion more valid?
        At the end of the day, evaluate the criticism after letting your emotions go and take what makes sense to you.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I think you must have criticism or you won’t learn. Agreed. It’s becoming a matter of opinion masked as criticism. Using myself as an example, when I presented work I was told that my characters seemed too young by one person, and seemed too old by a different person. Is that criticism or opinion? I think that becomes the problem with believable. Who defines what believable is. Criticism is more like the characters appear emotionless and lackluster especially considering it’s written in first person.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Yes, I think this is definitely the difference between opinion and criticism. As I was reading the comments, I reflected on when I had used the term “believable” in relation to a review and I think it was when an author had a situation occur twice, which would never have occurred in the first place (unless it was *science* fiction and then all bets are off).
        The unfortunate thing with most introductory creative writing classes is that the other students are just starting too and unless they’ve read a lot and tried to learn about writing, most of what they have to offer is opinion. Not that opinion can’t be useful.
        As always you provide the most thought-provoking posts! And, eclectic.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Thank you! Yeah….I like to live on the edge and go literally all over the place. Keeps it interesting!! FYI….I think I’m going to overthink the whole opinion/criticism thing for a future post…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. As a reader, I have to believe in my characters and their situations, even in fantasy/paranormal books. I can handle things getting stretched, but only so far. That said, I think believability comes down to the author making those characters and situations feel real to the reader. Too many perfect coincidences to line things up in a story to make them work, or characters that seem utterly perfect or horrifically bad, things that keep the reader from feeling they are genuine and human and fallible. Those are all things that tend to break the believability barrier. Even then, though, it truly does come down to how the reader is going to interpret all those things. What is believable to one won’t be to another.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Well said. I think you have to go into a work of fiction with an open mind and see how an author has chosen to write. I agree with you. Does the author hold up the framework properly.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree and disagree with you. the character should be believable, no matter what kind of fiction. I write fantasy, and even though things can be make believe, it still has to make sense. it’s not that there’s a majority or a minority, it’s that ‘unrealistic’ stories, characters, plots or dialogue would make for a badly written story, no matter the genre.
    for example, you have to consider that character’s personality and try to think like him/her how would she react if x y z was presented?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I actually agree with you about character having believability even in dystopian works. I just wonder if people are writing them because they think they can stretch boundaries. But I think the character has to be written well

      Liked by 1 person

      1. you can stretch boundaries in fantasy, that’s why they are fantasy – but you’d have to stay within all the rules you set. for example, if a character can use telekinesis, they can’t at a later part start reading minds. it all depends, really how you set your characters at te beginning. and give them credibility throughout the entire story. that’s the most important part, no matter how fantastic.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. ANY character can be believable if you make him/her three dimensional. The key is that the reader be able to relate to the person (or animal, or inanimate object, or whatever.) That means the reader must FEEL something. The character has to evoke love, hate, anger, passion or some real emotion in the reader.
    In personification, (Think Animal Farm) your characters aren’t even human (or The Lion King), and yet they are believable and you feel for them. You even cry or become angry at those personified characters.
    A vampire or ghost can become sympathetic, and yet we know the paranormal realm is not real.

    ANY character must have a plethora of emotions just like real people would. They need subtext (a back story) Look at every play ever written. If the character doesn’t evoke emotion he is not believable and therefore two dimensional and useless. Those characters are always cut out of the play. Or in a choral scene.

    In class I would tell them the old show biz phrase from the song in Singing in the Rain. “Make ’em laugh, Make ’em cry…” THAT is what makes characters realistic. DO WE CARE ABOUT THEM? Do we care enough to hate them? Or love them? Do they bug us? As long as your character makes you feel emotions, then they are good, real characters.

    If writers can make animals believable or even a Little Toaster, then certainly you can make a person believable.
    **The first thing I would do every year when teaching narrative writing was to show sections of the Disney movie “The Little Toaster”. We’d discuss why we feel for these inanimate objects. Why we cried for the toaster and the blanket on their journey to find the boy. Even children could see it was because the Toaster loved the boy and he made us care about him. The drama was so well written that we worried about the safety of objects!!
    My suggestion is to watch some great Disney movies that use personification. WATCH how animals and inanimate objects become REAL. It is very helpful in understanding how to write a believable, realistic character.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s not so much about writing a believable character as much as what does one consider believable. One of my friends factionalized something she saw someone do. Two people told her that the situation would never happen in real life. The situation actually did happen. But should she not use it because people don’t think it’s believable?

      Like

      1. Everyone’s a critic! This can do more harm than good, I’m afraid. I go to a workshop where we are only allowed to discuss what’s memorable and why. It works for me because I get inhibited with criticism.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I started writing several times and then deleted my responses. It’s not an easy question. A character needs to be more than one-dimensional, and that is what makes him/her believable. The few times I’ve started a book and not finished it have occurred when the characters never fully developed or never reacted in believable ways to circumstances they encountered. I’ll put up with a great deal of nonsense in a storyline if I like the character.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you’re on to something…the character has to be written in the same manner all the way through….they can’t jump in and out of character because then it loses credibility.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not necessarily. Most novels have characters that evolve. We see who they are but also how they change or struggle as they journey through your story. Also, every character should have a “tragic flaw” or weakness. That way you can see growth in them as your story progresses. This is pretty standard in all literature.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. They don’t have to like your character’s flaw. Imagine if someone told Conan Doyle not to give Sherlock Holmes a cocaine habit, or Superman a weakness to cryptonite. They are unexpected flaws but they work. If you like it that’s all that matters. Maybe your character has IBS or hay fever or is allergic to mango. Perhaps she hates country music. Anything can be used as long as it works. Lizzie Bennett was too quick to judge Mr. Darcy and he was too prideful. Simple traits that made two of our best Literary figures ever. Do you think Jane Austen would have cared if someone didn’t like her characters? She called them her children.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. If you believe it then it’s real. More importantly if it works in your story, moves the action forward, resonates with the reader then it works. Read section out loud and record it on your phone. Listen to how it sounds and see if you believe your character. There aren’t any parameters if your character is natural and has dimension.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. In general, though, the big criticism in work is, it’s not believable. Like my friend who fictionalized a real incident. The critique given to her was “no man would ever do that. It’s not believable.” If an incident is real, but people don’t believe it, should it be used?

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Well, it’s not my work per se. it’s work in general. To be fair, no one has told me something isn’t believable in my work. But I notice it happening with a lot of my writer friends. It made me broach the arena of what defines believability in a character or story

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I think the critics sound nit-picky. For one, is your friend’s story in question a fiction piece? If so, they may have been put off by other details, and not necessarily by the boiled-down fact of it happening or not.
    When considering your question of Dystopian novels, I think we are actually drawn to them because we have no real challenges in life. We are not drafted into war, starving in the streets, or having our limbs torn off (I hope, for all those things). I feel it draws into the morbid curiosity and soft living categories; to a desire for something REAL in a world becoming increasingly virtual.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think people find certain situations odd and need to say they’re not believable. I don’t think anything is out of the realm of possibility, so if a story is well told I’m all in

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a general feeling….so many people say “oh that would never happen” and critique it based on that. I keep reading “believable” and I struggle with the meaning

      Like

  7. Great points! It’s one of those discerning things, I think, and some a matter of opinion. From one personal experience that I thought was kind of funny was in my novel, it is drawn from a portion of a true life experience, and one of the critiquers said the character I wrote about going through such medical hardships was very believable. lol It made me laugh out loud. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I think believability is in the eye of the beholder. As many others have pointed out, what one person is quite ready to believe, another person thinks is totally unbelievable. So I would say, just create characters that you can believe in, and let your readers go along for the ride!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s