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Monday, February 04, 2008


Don't Cheat the Reader

I recently read a couple of books and one stuck with me, while the other annoyed me. Both used a disease-of-the-week plot device, but in the book I liked, it didn't feel like a device; it simply felt like something that could logically happen. Plus, what was more important is how the affected character reacted to having the disease.

Imagine a man who's spent his entire life not quite doing the right thing because he's incapable of it. He's not a bad person, just not the most caring, compassionate guy around. He gets cancer and instead of some miraculous change overcoming him, he deals with the disease the same way he's dealt with life. No pages-long soliloquies follow and I have to admit, it was refreshing to read this realistic portrayal of a dying man.

In the other book, the reader is given hints that one character is ill, but when it comes down to who gets sick, it's another character. This book was like a romantic comedy in book form, so when the main character becomes ill, you just know she's going to recover, right? Wrong. She dies and I felt incredibly cheated by the book as a whole. It was like watching While You Were Sleeping and in the last scene, having Michael Myers from the Halloween movies come in and butcher everyone. It was like death was added to the plot to make the book heavier than it was supposed to be.

One thing that's vital to creating believable fiction is having your characters behave in believable ways. I know, it's fiction, it's all made up, so what's to believe? But readers deserve better than writers acting like literary gods who create whole worlds full of characters who do only what the writers want. You have to listen to your characters and find out what they would do.

If you've created a woman who finds out her husband is cheating, how is she going to react to this news? If you've done a skillful job of outlining her character and adding relevant details, you won't have to wonder about this for long. If she's a fiery, action-oriented woman, readers won't be surprised if she tosses all of his belongings outside a bedroom window before driving to the other woman's house to confront her. But what if she's a quiet, introverted type? Would this behavior be as believable? It can be, but only if you've provided subtle clues beforehand that make the reader think, wow, I didn't see that coming, but I can see how that could happen. For instance, she may be quiet, but what if events shown in flashback reveal a lot of pent-up anger? What if this is only the latest in a string of affairs for the husband and she's finally had enough? However you create her, you're not creating her in a bubble. If you want her to be believable, she has to have prior life experiences that make her behave the way she does right now.

If you want your readers to think and ultimately be satisfied by what you've written, don't cheat them or yourself by making your characters do what they know they would never do.

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