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02 May 2011 @ 12:08 am
Craft TOTW: Making Your Characters Believe  

So your main character is seeing ghosts / transported back in time / finding out her boyfriend is a supernatural creature. He or she is probably frantically trying to figure out a rational explanation for what’s happening. Which is reasonable… but for the reader, who has already read the back blurb and knows this is a fantasy novel, the endless pages where the character denies what is happening can get tedious fast. 

How do you balance the two – make your main character’s reaction realistic (and sane) without boring your readers with it?

My favorite solution is to start the story after the main character has already accepted the magic: maybe he’s been seeing ghosts all along, belongs to a society that believes in magic, or has had hints to her boyfriend’s strangeness building up for so long that she’s subconsciously believed it for quite a while.

Another common tactic is to take care of it in one “I don’t believe you / here’s some proof” scene, where the main character’s disbelief is presented and overcome by overwhelming evidence. Of course, since the reader already knows the evidence will be overwhelming, you usually have to put in something else to make that scene interesting.

What are your favorite tactics for getting through your character’s disbelief? And your favorite books where this was done ingeniously or well?

Zoe Marriottredzolah on May 2nd, 2011 06:16 am (UTC)
I think there's a lot to be said for *showing* the main character's escalating shock, disbelief, fear and doubt in their own sanity. That's a great source of angst and therefore a good opportunity to develop character - if done well it makes a character who might have extraordinary abilities or be going through extraordinary events seem normal and easy to relate to for the readers (who probably can't zap people with their mind/see dead people/fly).

A great example of this is Kelley Armstrong's Darkest Powers series. The heroine's quest for information to help her understand what she's going through, and her common sense, believable reactions, really endeared her to me. Also, if anyone can remember the first season of Heroes - one of the most interesting things was watching the characters realise and come to terms with their abilities. I always felt kind of cheated that we didn't get to see Claire Bennet's discovery that she regenerated, and the episode where they flashed back to show this was one of my favourites.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on May 2nd, 2011 05:15 pm (UTC)
Wow, Heroes flashback! I also thought it was interesting that they showed us Claire after she already knew she was invincible. And the Darkest Power series is a great example too.
Zoe Marriottredzolah on May 2nd, 2011 05:23 pm (UTC)
Maybe I'm just incurably nosy! I always want to unpack things and see how people got to BE where they are, how they felt about things when they first realised them, how that history affects them. I'm fascinated by it. A symptom of this is that, while most of the world seems to hate flashbacks, I adore them. Flashback episodes of anything (Heroes, Lost) are always my favourite. And sometimes if an author sets up a character with a mysterious backstory full of conflict and emotion and, as the story develops, I realise they're just going to hint at it, rather than really SHOWING me, I get really frustrated and feel cheated. So - yeah. Incredibly nosy...
annastanannastan on May 2nd, 2011 01:50 pm (UTC)
I like the first technique you mentioned, starting the story with the character already believing the magic. It's fun to then throw the reader into a world that the character already accepts.

I find that when characters discover the magic in the story, it needs to be that perfect balance of disbelief, proof, and acceptance. If it's too long or too short, it can feel unsatisfying.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on May 2nd, 2011 05:16 pm (UTC)
Exactly - it's a tough balance. I remember thinking as a kid, "All these characters should just believe in the magic right away so we can get on with it!" But of course, that wouldn't be realistic.
carmenferreirocarmenferreiro on May 2nd, 2011 04:07 pm (UTC)
Hard evidence works for me
I'm all for throwing undeniable proof at the protagonist.

In Two Moon Princess, Andrea enters an arch in her world and when she steps out, she is in a different place altogether. You can't disbelieve that.

In my current novel, the "boyfriend" stops time the first time he meets the protagonist. She gets the hint.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on May 2nd, 2011 05:17 pm (UTC)
Re: Hard evidence works for me
True, although people can always think they're dreaming, on drugs, etc. I guess a variation of that is setting up the character so that he/she is someone who's open to believing in magic, even if he/she doesn't believe in it yet.
Lisa Greenlisagailgreen on May 2nd, 2011 04:56 pm (UTC)
Great Topic!!
What a wonderful opportunity to do some unique character building. (This just strikes me right now) I mean what type of character would agree to suspend their disbelief easily? Someone who longs for it to be true? Someone who has enough confidence in herself to "get" it right away? Someone who's teased because they already believe it? There are a million reasons to play with.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on May 2nd, 2011 05:19 pm (UTC)
Re: Great Topic!!
Very true. You reminded me that in one of my older manuscripts, I had the mc be someone who always wanted to believe she was special, so when she was told she was the key to some magical secret society, she leapt at the chance.
ex_marissam on May 2nd, 2011 05:02 pm (UTC)
Great post! I agree, it needs to be a balance and the story needs to keep moving forward while a character works past their denial. But at the same time, nothing drives me crazier than a character faced with something completely off-the-wall who accepts it way too fast. I like a little bit of skepticism, because I know I would try to rule out every scientific explanation first!

One of my favorite techniques is when the 'truth' explains a lot of things for the character. Like Harry Potter suddenly understanding why he can make weird things happen, or Percy Jackson figuring out why he's such a magnet for trouble. They've always felt like something was wrong with them and finally someone is offering them an explanation. I think it's easier to accept the supernatural when you've already had some suspicions.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on May 2nd, 2011 05:20 pm (UTC)
So true - I love the concept that the magic, weird as it is, explains previous weirdness and so can be accepted. You've also made me think of another solution, which is to dress up the magic in some sort of scientific-sounding explanation. I bet people in our current society would be far more likely to accept it that way.
ex_marissam on May 2nd, 2011 06:12 pm (UTC)
Ha! Funny you say that because that's exactly what I did with the "magic" (a.k.a. bioelectric manipulation) in Cinder! ^^
streetsoft.eustreetsoft on May 2nd, 2011 05:19 pm (UTC)
If i was a writer, I wouldn't renounce to represent first disbelief: he could had refused magic in the past then accepted now (knowing new elements) as only possible explanation to that past situation.
Sorry for intsion i have found this link on twitter :)

Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on May 3rd, 2011 12:35 am (UTC)
Another possibility, and a very interesting one! Thanks.
Brendan Gannonbrendan_gannon on May 2nd, 2011 05:49 pm (UTC)
I always prefer not to start with the character already believing in magic (or the equivalent). I'm actually planning a blog post on the topic. If the protagonist thinks magic is normal, so will the reader, and all the fantastic elements of your setting will be accepted as banal. More importantly, the journey to belief and into that new, fantastic world is an opportunity for the reader to bond with your protagonist as they make the trip together. Imagine Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone if it opened with Halloween at Hogwarts.

Granted, I also love Diana Wynn Jones to pieces, and most of her books dump the reader right into a fantasy setting.

I like the brute force method. When something really crazy happens to a person, part of them takes it at face value. Maybe they hide it, question it, or question their sanity--all good plot material--but seeing is believing, deep down.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on May 3rd, 2011 03:45 pm (UTC)
It's true that the sense of wonder can come across more easily if the reader is discovering the magic along with the character, but I don't think presupposing a belief in magic means the magic has to be mundane. (Diana Wynne Jones, and you mentioned, being a great example of this.) It is more of a danger, though! And I agree that there's a lot of advantages to having the mc go through a "journey to belief," as you put it.
Jami GoldJami Gold on May 2nd, 2011 09:51 pm (UTC)
This is an interesting topic because I had the opposite problem in my WIP. One of my beta readers said I hadn't done *enough* to show why the character was so accepting of the weirdness. I thought her dying and coming back to life would be a a good reason, but no... *sigh* :)
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on May 3rd, 2011 03:46 pm (UTC)
Yes... this is why it's a difficult balance. I hope the discussions here are helpful to you in figuring out!
A Deserving Porcupine: roarrockinlibrarian on May 2nd, 2011 10:11 pm (UTC)
I think humor is my favorite way to bridge the gap. I don't mind watching a character struggle to believe for pages if it's done in a clever or entertaining way. Also, when the revelation scene reveals more than just the magic, but reveals a whole lot else about the characters as well, that works for me, too. Dropping the reader right in to the world does eliminate the need for the revelation scene, but it also sometimes results in tedious out-of-character infodumping to make up for it, so either way, it depends less on the technique and more how well it's DONE.
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on May 3rd, 2011 03:47 pm (UTC)
I totally agree. And definitely, if you're good at writing humor, you can get away with almost anything! Having a revelation scene serve more than one purpose is also a great idea - the mc can be concentrating on the magic, but the reader can be invested in whatever else is being revealed.
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Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on May 3rd, 2011 03:48 pm (UTC)
Yes, definitely - it's a great idea to have everything happening simultaneously, rather than having Part 1: MC finds out about magic, Part 2: Then stuff happens. A lot of older books were written that way, but I see it less and less these days.
readwriterockreadwriterock on May 3rd, 2011 03:52 am (UTC)
The "discovery moment" is such a staple at this point, that I think poking fun at it is a good way to keep it from seeming tired. On Doctor Who, they do this a lot when a new character discovers that the TARDIS is "bigger on the inside". At one point last season, the Doctor actually said, "I like the bit when someone says 'It's bigger on the inside!'. I always look forward to that." :)
Leah_Cypessleah_cypess on May 3rd, 2011 03:50 pm (UTC)
That's great. Not exactly on the same topic, but it's like that scene in Buffy where Giles says, "It could mean the end of the world," and everyone is like, "AGAIN?"
lauramc on May 3rd, 2011 07:19 pm (UTC)
I find doubt and misunderstanding can sometimes make the unbelievable more believable. To liken it to dialogue -- if everything is perfectly mapped out and understood by every character, this doesn't jibe with the way we know the world to work. We all use electricity, for example, but how many of us can provide an in depth explanation of what happens when we flick a light switch? So, to create levels of understanding and misunderstanding in a story can sometimes ultimately make the magic more believable. This, too, can keep your reader on his/her toes. S/he has to guess who's right in the story and who's wrong.