If you don’t prove your character deserves to win, no amount of writing technique is going to get your readers to suspend disbelief and buy into your story.
Picture a baseball field. Imagine that Roger Clemons has taken the mound. In the batter’s box is… a three-year-old boy. Clemons throws a slider. The three-year-old swings and hits the ball out of the park.
Did you believe that story? Yeah, neither did I.
I could have added all the sensory details you wanted into that little story. I could have told you about the smell of the peanuts and cracker jacks and the breeze. I could have talked about the hot sun and the hush that fell over the crowd. I could have given you the radar speed on the ball to make it sound more realistic. But no matter what tool of creating suspension of disbelief I used, no one in this world is going to believe that a three-year-old can hit a home run off a Roger Clemons’ slider.
If you want to govern your make-believe elements, you need to tread carefully with the results of confrontations. If the climax is as believable as the above situation, your readers will feel cheated.
We authors must attempt an epic balancing act here. In order for our climax to reach our audience on an emotional level, we must make the reader doubt the hero can pull it off while at the same time presenting the reader with a thin sliver of hope that the hero might actually win. If the audience believes there is no way the hero can win, we lose them. If the audience thinks the hero has the win in the bag, they will get bored. (And readers rarely realize how much work we authors put into our stories…)
Here are a few things to keep in mind when you are staging confrontations between characters, creatures, and machinery (think of Terminator).
If two characters of different skill levels are involved in a confrontation, make sure to give the weaker character a separate skill that can help him win.
- Take Thor vs. Loki in both Thor and The Avengers. Thor’s strength and hammer make him a foe Loki cannot beat. However, Loki is cunning, he is not afraid to hurt others, and he can trick his enemies with holograms of himself. (It’s probably the wrong word, but you know what I mean.) Without these skills, a Loki/Thor duel would be as about as exciting as Mike Tyson vs. Me in a boxing ring.
- Harry Potter was able to defeat Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone partially because of his mother’s blood in his skin.
- Bilbo Baggins possessed a ring that made him invisible.
- James Bond gets to use toys made by Q.
Here are a few skills (besides the usual fighting techniques and technology) you can give your characters that will help them beat a stronger adversary:
- Intelligence: Your weaker character might be able to conceive a better strategy. The same goes for armies. In my second novel, Out of the Shadows, my hero Davian must take over a city with a tiny army. They are highly trained special operatives, but their lack of numbers is a huge limitation. Davian must try to win the battle by out-strategizing his opponent.
- Sheer will: The character who refuses to give in has a definite advantage. Think of Rocky Balboa…
- Courage: The bravery to do something that seems impossible or dangerous will be a definite advantage.
- Magic Powers: Your character may have a psychic power or the ability to read minds. Whatever the power, it gives your character an advantage.
- Knowledge: A wizard who knows more spells has an advantage over a more powerful wizard. Often times, Captain Kirk won battles on Star Trek because of his knowledge of the Enterprise’s inner workings.
- Loyalty of Friends: A character with a tight group of friends standing behind him has an advantage.
- Personality: Never underestimate the power of charisma, kindness, and leadership. In The Hobbit, the eagles carry Gandalf, Thorin, and Company away from danger because Gandalf saved the life of their leader. The wizard’s kind deeds in the past were what saved him.
- Development of a characteristic or skill: For example: your female character started out shy. Throughout the story, she learned to stand up for herself. During the climax, she stood up to the popular girl, and she helped the rest of the kids at school realize that peer pressure was stupid. She learned to overcome her weaknesses and do something she was never able to do before. NOTE: Whatever you do, please don’t make the mistake of not giving your character enough time to develop a skill set before putting him or her into a confrontation. Someone who never played football before isn’t going to make the NFL team with only three football lessons—even if Peyton Manning is the teacher.
If your character possesses a skill that will help him win, make sure you show it to the reader before your epic confrontation. In my first book, A Prophecy Forgotten, you will notice that I show Davian’s knife-throwing skills at least twice:
- Once during an early battle: “Davian and Marcus flew to help handle the remaining mornachts and found the last one jumping between a few boulders as Eric, Josephi, and Snead shot at it but kept missing. Davian huffed with impatience, pulled out his knife, and settled the matter with a flick of his wrist.”
- Once later on: “After another rustle, Davian whipped around and threw his knife at a form that crouched near a boulder about ten yards away. The knife hit the intruder’s chest with a ‘clang’.”
- Another with dialogue: “[Davian] turned to Josephi and whispered, “Never could get used to [sunstars], but don’t tell the captain I told you that.” “That doesn’t make sense, sir. You’re pretty good with a knife,” said Josephi with a look at the newest scratch in his breastplate.
I also make sure to show the audience Davian’s skill in battle a few times. I do the same with the heroine, Gabriella. Her shot with a bow is unrivaled. I need to show her skills before the epic battle scenes.
This also applies to romance climaxes. If your geek girl gets the captain of the football team to fall in love with her or your average Joe gets the model to choose him over the millionaire playboy, you had better provide your audience with a good reason why, and show evidence of it before the climax.
What to take from this: Back to our Roger Clemons vs. the three-year-old story. What if I told you that the child’s name was Clark Kent? That would totally change the believability of the ending, wouldn’t it? You can write stories where the underdog wins. You just have to prove it can happen.
Mainstream Writers: You can make the same mistakes with mainstream conflicts. Prove that your characters deserve to win.
Speculative Writers: Your work is cut out for you, both in showing the reader your make-believe elements and toys, and then convincing your reader that your hero or heroine deserves the victory. Don’t get lazy. Show it. Prove it. Your readers will love you for it!
If you are new to this blog, 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 third and most important rule for making readers suspend their disbelief and buy into our story’s make-believe elements: Rule #3—Govern Your Make Believe Elements. We have already discussed these techniques:
- Keeping within the boundaries of the laws of physics
- Why the Laws of Thermodynamics are Important to Your Story
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.