Writing: Character Reactions Can Make Or Break Suspension of Disbelief

Character reactions to and use of your make-believe elements can make or break your reader’s suspension of disbelief.

I’m a huge Yankees fan. During baseball season—especially the final few weeks and the playoffs—I do whatever it takes to keep track of the scores. A few years ago, if a playoff game was on and I was out to dinner with my family, I would make put myself where I could see a television, or I would walk into the restaurant’s bar to check out the scores on ESPN’s ticker. Nowadays, if I want to know the scores, I discreetly check my smartphone. What a difference a few years of technology makes!

Now imagine this: I’m a character in your novel. I play the obsessive-Yankees-fan-comic-relief role. It’s the year 2012, and you’ve made sure the reader knows I have a smartphone with internet access. In your scene, the Yankees are playing the Red Sox in the last game of the season, the division title and playoff berth is on the line, and I’m stuck in a French restaurant for girls’ night out with no television access. I’m frustrated that I can’t find out the score. I create a reason to leave the restaurant so I can hop over to the sports bar next door to catch up on the game. At the sports bar, I get kidnapped, which moves your plot forward.

You, the writer, have a very big problem.

I, as your character, have a smartphone. I can discreetly check the score throughout dinner. Any diehard sports fan reading your story would point that out because we use our smart phones to check scores all the time. (The webpage with the Yankees scoreboard is bookmarked on my phone.) Therefore, I have no reason to enter the sports bar next door. Therefore, I’m not kidnapped. You’ve provided me with super-cool technology that would be considered make-believe ten years ago, but you’ve neglected to let me use the technology the way my character actually would use it. You’ve also lost anyone in your audience who uses a smartphone. They no longer believe my character is valid.

As mentioned earlier: Character reactions to and use of your make-believe elements can make or break your reader’s suspension of disbelief.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing a series of posts about writing speculative fiction, including fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, comic books, paranormal, and horror. (For the full list, click here or on the category called “Making Make-Believe Believable.”) This week, we are taking a closer look at the second rule for making readers suspend their disbelief and buy into our story’s make-believe elements: Rule #2—Make Your Make-Believe Feel Believable. We will be discussing these four techniques:

Today, we’re discussing character reactions. Here are a few things to keep in mind about your characters’ behavior regarding your make-believe elements and worlds:

  • Characters need to use the make-believe elements you have given them. All seven Harry Potter books are excellent examples of this. Every time a character could and would use magic, J. K. Rowling make sure to show it (or explain why magic wouldn’t work in the situation). If your vampire can read human minds (please don’t make him sparkly), he had better not get caught unawares by a human.
  • Get into your characters’ heads to figure out how they would react. We discussed this in Tuesday’s post on sensory details, if you would like to read more.
  • Explain why character behavior might not make sense, given the make-believe elements you’ve provided. Why hasn’t your all-powerful psychic won the lottery? Make sure to explain it. In my Elysian Chronicles series, my angels frequently ride unicorns. A few people ask why they don’t just fly. My answer: their airspace has been compromised. Translation: too many snipers lurk in the war-torn territories and can shoot down angels who try to fly.
  • Characters should react to make-believe elements as though they are believable elements—within the world you have created. Remember Ron’s reaction to Harry’s chocolate frog jumping out of the train in the Harry Potter series? He said, “Bad luck,” as though chocolate frogs jumping around were completely normal. To Ron, they were normal.
  • If you bring characters from different worlds or cultures together, pay attention to how they react to newfound make-believe elements. In the movie, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I love the reactions of the characters when the beaver first meets the children. The children are shocked the beaver can talk. The beaver is shocked that the children don’t know that animals can talk. I also love how the faun, Mr. Tumnus, is afraid of Lucy when he first meets her. He had never encountered a human before.
  • Remember that cultures have nicknames and colloquialisms. If you have created your own worlds you need to create nicknames, jokes, and colloquialisms. In The Elysian Chronicles, my soldier characters use words like “sprite” and “faun” as heavy putdowns. They call my demonic creatures “scabs” instead of mornachts. Battlestar Galactica characters us “frak” as their f-bomb.
  • The best way catch when your characters aren’t behaving correctly: use beta readers. They catch everything. I cover how to use beta readers in an earlier post on the writing process (click here to read).
  • Don’t despair if you have to change your character’s behavior, which compromises a major plot point. Write your way out of it. In the first example of me using my smartphone to check the Yankees score, you can always have me forget the phone, drop it in a toilet, or kill the battery. All three create tension and drama. (And if my phone doesn’t work, I can’t call out if I’m kidnapped, can I? You’ve just fixed two problems with one story adjustment!)

What to take from this: Adding in make-believe elements will change the way your character behaves. Make sure to think through your character behavior in logical fashion.

Mainstream Writers: You’re not off the hook. My smartphone example above is mainstream example.

Speculative Writers: Your task is daunting because you don’t have access to your make-believe elements. Make sure you use advance readers to help you find character behavior issues.

Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.

About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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6 Responses to Writing: Character Reactions Can Make Or Break Suspension of Disbelief

  1. Alisa Russell says:

    So timely. I’m having my main female character’s I-Phone fall out of her pocket during a fight to advance my plot.


  2. Alisa Russell says:

    Sorry, on my last comment. I was saying it was good it wasn’t a smart phone since those are so expensive. Fuddling fingers. 🙂


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