Character Says, “Like Me Or Not, You Have To Believe Me”

Just one week after I publicly committed to do one writing-related post per week, I contemplated handing this post over to life.  Life is still unruly, and I’ve been struggling with my first character development for novel #2, which I’m writing in the form of a short story.  I’ve left and came back to it several times over the last two weeks, but couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong with it. 

On Tuesday, I read a post by Hilary Clark titled, “Conflict is Change”.  As the title suggests, the post discussed how novels need conflict, but conflict isn’t always a confrontation between people.  A change of any kind can be conflict, too. 

This post got me thinking about character motivation.  I know it sounds like a stretch, but conflict and motivation are tied together by a thin thread (kind of like my patience and sanity.)  If you think about it, character motivation drives how conflict (both internal and external,) arises and is resolved.

And there was the issue with my story.

In my short story, there was plenty of conflict between the three siblings.  The problem was that the main character’s siblings came off as self-absorbed, in an unbelievable way.  I (finally) realized that the piece missing was a clue as to why they behaved that way.  I was so focused on getting to know the main character, that I overlooked the others.

I can’t give away the story because I may post it here someday, so I’ll use another example:  A grumpy old man who yells at children playing in front of his house may not be a likeable character.  However, if we find out that the man’s wife passed away two weeks ago, we gain understanding, and possibly some sympathy.  He still may not be likeable, but there is an explanation, other than “he’s a just a jerk,” so his behavior is more believable (and tolerable).

I may not always write a likeable character, because, well, it can be fun to write a despicable one and watch him (her) stumble.  But the characters must be believable because believable is relatable – and if readers can identify with an aspect of the character’s personality, then they might just keep reading to the end.

Have you ever not finished reading a story or novel because of ‘unbelievable’ characters?

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34 thoughts on “Character Says, “Like Me Or Not, You Have To Believe Me”

  1. Debbie April 28, 2011 / 7:19 AM

    I can’t remember failing to finish reading a story because of unbelievable characters, but I did toss a book aside for discrepancies. One page had the main character’s eyes bright blue; three pages later, they magically turned green! Might be an editor’s problem, might be the writer’s slip-up, but I refused to wade further. Glad you resolved your problem!

    • jannatwrites April 28, 2011 / 7:25 PM

      Maybe the character wore colored contacts? (Only kidding.) I think that would be an author and editor issue, and I would be concerned about what else wouldn’t match up.

      Thanks for stopping by, Debbie!

  2. Melissa April 28, 2011 / 7:38 AM

    Conflict & motivation are absolutely connected. One of the sessions I participated in at a writers conference in February discussed this very thing. Internal motivations propel character development, external motivations propel the story & cause conflict, but they are very much connected and necessary.

    I generally forget this when creating characters, too. I had one who was sort of obnoxious and unlikeable to the point she burdened the story. She needed more depth, backstory, reasons WHY to push the conflict and motivation forward in a believable fashion. Only, realization hit after I abandoned the project. C’est la vie.

    Better the lesson learned now than never!

    • jannatwrites April 28, 2011 / 7:36 PM

      I really need to get to a writers conference! It seems so obvious when you spell it out like that 🙂

      Now that you know what the problem is, Melissa, maybe you’ll pick up the project again at some point?

      Here’s to lessons learned! (Agreed, that it’s better late than never…)

      • Melissa April 29, 2011 / 6:20 AM

        They are so much fun! I don’t have any local writer friends, so it was surreal to be surrounded by hundreds of people who love to do the same things! Plus, the sessions were amazing & agents suddenly seem significantly less scary 🙂

        I don’t know how soon I’ll pick it up. This project was abandoned after 6 months, where I wrote almost 80k of beginning – starting over & over & over again. Matter of fact, I decided to dump it AT the conference during the keynote speech. Sandra Brown was our speaker & said something like “sometimes a story just doesn’t want to be told” and everything she said for the next 5 minutes was almost like it was exclusively for me. My crit partner leaned over and whispered the same thing.

        So, for now, it’s tucked away. I want to be able to let the whole story and plot and whatnot get a little fuzzy before I tackle it again to really start anew.

        • jannatwrites April 29, 2011 / 8:16 PM

          I haven’t found a local writing group either, so it would be nice to make some connections. It’s possible I’ll go to the one that is held every 2 years in my area because at least I won’t have the added cost of travel and hotel. (It’s coming up in 2012 and I doubt novel #2 will be ready, seeing as though I’m still working on characters.)

      • widdershins April 29, 2011 / 2:20 PM

        Janna, have you thought about going to on-line conferences?

        One I’ve been to a couple of times is the Muse on-line Conference

        It’s truly awesome, and you can attend in your jammies! Best of all it’s FREE. (It’s where I pitched my novel last year and scored my current publisher)

        • jannatwrites April 29, 2011 / 8:12 PM

          Actually, I haven’t thought about it, Widdershins….because I didn’t even know such a thing existed! Thanks for the link – I bookmarked the page so I can review it in more detail. At the rate I’m going, I won’t have a novel ready for this year’s conference, but I can still check it out 🙂

  3. Hilary Clark April 28, 2011 / 7:57 AM

    Thanks for the pingback!

    I agree that the reader needs to know why a nasty character behaves the way he or she does. Even the worst villain has a motivation (think Heath Ledger’s Joker in Batman Returns…he was awful but his “moral” conviction behind his actions drew me in to the point where I, almost, rooted for him.).

    • jannatwrites April 28, 2011 / 7:37 PM

      Thanks for unsticking my brain, Hilary!

      You bring up another good point: even the bad characters should have some redeeming qualities (and our good guys should have some flaws, too.)

  4. Carol Ann Hoel April 28, 2011 / 9:12 AM

    I agree that characters must be believable to keep the reader’s interest. If the character is unbelievable, the reader likely will not identify with the character and will not care what happens next, be it exciting or not. Part of the excitement or drama generated by circumstance has to do with how we relate the the characters involved.

    Thank you for sharing an interesting and relative-to-writing post. All your posts are interesting. Variety is the spice of life. Blessings to you, Janna…

    • jannatwrites April 28, 2011 / 7:46 PM

      You’re right, Carol – getting the readers to care about the characters is important, too. (And it is another benefit of having a character that’s believable.)

      Thank you for your kind words 🙂

  5. carldagostino April 28, 2011 / 10:02 AM

    Homer Simpson: ” Always do things half-way. It is the American way and helps people get jobs to finish the other half.” “Huh? It was like that when I got here. ” I think in writing, the conflict may go unresolved as a dynamic of the story. The conflict can lead to other conflicts to keep the story going like an Indiana Jones movie. Or the conflict may not be resolvable leaving no closure.

    • jannatwrites April 28, 2011 / 7:50 PM

      I agree with you, that there are different types of conflict. It’s a nice effect to have different layers/types of conflict. Personally, I prefer some kind of closure, but not necessarily a “happily ever after” neat and tidy ending.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Carl!

  6. crumbl April 28, 2011 / 10:25 AM

    Odd as I am, I always felt, whether reading or writing, that, while the technical elements were important to the creation of a good story, the suspension of disbelief was key. Doesn’t matter what you write if the reader is willing to suspend their disbelief in order to read.

    Yeah, I’ve walked away from any number of books or stories, for any number of reasons, including unbelievable characters, and carried on with many because, unbelievable as the character might be, the story supported the suspension of my disbelief.

    • jannatwrites April 28, 2011 / 7:58 PM

      Good point, Crumbl. I think how much I am willing to suspend belief has to depend on the genre and time period that the book is in. A fantasy novel has a lot more wiggle room than a modern day mystery set in New York City. I have a bad habit of finishing even books I don’t care for, just so I can see the story through. I need to break that habit 🙂

      Thanks for visiting and commenting on the topic today!

      • knotrune April 29, 2011 / 3:37 AM

        I have that bad habit too, then I feel like I just wasted a load of time 😦 But it can be salvaged if you take time to analyse why you didn’t like it – was it not to your taste or had the author just done it wrong, if so what did they do wrong, how would it be done better and how can you avoid it in your own writing!

        I also have the bad habit of finding it hard to not eat everything on my plate, which comes from my upbringing. OK I dislike waste, but I also dislike the struggle to lose weight! Also the bloating and indigestion… 🙂

        • jannatwrites April 29, 2011 / 8:27 PM

          Well, Knotrune, at least you don’t get bloating and indigestion from reading a terrible book. Although it can make you feel sick all the same!

          It is a good idea to think about what was wrong with the book. If we can learn from someone else’s mistakes, it just might help. In fact, I just read a book last week where the author kept “head hopping” (inserting feelings/reactions from multiple people that wouldn’t have been known to the point of view character.) It was distracting to me, but I probably wouldn’t have recognized this a few years ago!

          P.S. clearing your plate isn’t a bad thing, so don’t be too hard on yourself. I do the same thing, so I use the kiddie-sized plates and/or separate some of my meal to take to work for lunch the next day. Now if I could just stay away from the chocolate….

        • knotrune April 30, 2011 / 2:11 AM

          That would be fine if I got to choose the plate size, it’s not an issue at home, if I have too much I can put leftovers in the fridge. But we ate out the other day and I was given an enormous pile of delicious food… and hubby said I couldn’t have a doggy bag as it was embarrassing so I just had to eat as much of it as I could stuff in… 😦

        • jannatwrites April 30, 2011 / 9:42 PM

          Hmmm….I wonder why taking the leftovers would have been embarrassing to him? Faced with “eat it or leave it,” I can understand why you would choose “eat it.” It is such a waste of food/money if the food isn’t finished. (Hello, restaurants: smaller portion sizes.)

  7. 2blu2btru April 28, 2011 / 10:57 AM

    I never really thought about this in this way. I knew characters should be believable, but I never could get a plausible suggestion for making them seem believable even when they act outrageously. Knowing their motivations does help us to understand and believe bad behavior. So obviously, yet so easily overlooked.

    Congrats on your breakthrough with your short story/character examination. Can’t wait to read it (if you decide to post)! 🙂

    • jannatwrites April 28, 2011 / 8:08 PM

      It does seem obvious, 2blu (to nearly everyone except me :)) The other trick is working the motivation in through actions or dialogue so it seems natural and unforced. The funny thing is, that when I look back on some of the stories I’ve written, character motivation has come through – but it was pure accident.

      I’ll post it, as long as I don’t think it’s completely awful (or too long.)

      As always, I appreciate your comments!

  8. nrhatch April 28, 2011 / 12:08 PM

    Have you ever not finished reading a story or novel because of ‘unbelievable’ characters?

    YES! The novels of Danielle Steel are full of bizarrely unbelievable characters who are so “picture perfect” that I cannot stomach reading more than a few pages before tossing the book into the donation bin.

    Great post! Love the example of the old man.

    As we move through our daily lives, remembering the “hidden stories” reminds us NOT to judge others too quickly or harshly. That father who is losing his temper with his kids may have just buried his wife.

    • jannatwrites April 28, 2011 / 8:14 PM

      I’ve never read Danielle Steele…but your comment makes me curious. (I’m like the child you tell not to touch something hot, and they reach out and touch it :))

      I’m glad you liked the old man example, and you have a good point – everyone has their story and we should absolutely not judge. I know sometimes I get so wrapped up in “me” and what’s going on in “my” life, I forget to remember that.

      • jannatwrites April 28, 2011 / 8:49 PM

        Thanks for the link, I had missed that post. (I think it was during that crazy Freshly Pressed weekend I had.)

  9. Tori Nelson April 28, 2011 / 1:52 PM

    Loved Hilary’s post. I think providing just a little explanation for the character’s behavior/personality is crucial. If a character is just inexplicably rude, viscious, or even happy,people will doubt him/her. The reader has no way of connecting or relating to characters without feeling like she knows a bit about them.
    Great, great post. Glad you didn’t hand this one over to life 🙂

    • jannatwrites April 28, 2011 / 8:17 PM

      Since people in real life are a mix of behaviors and emotions, it only makes sense that fictional characters should be multi-dimensional. Since I am a plot-driven writer, it is hard for me to fight the urge to treat my characters like puppets whose only purpose is to make sure the next ‘thing’ happens in the story. That’s exactly why I’m torturing myself with this character development exercise 🙂

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Tori…it wasn’t easy wrestling it away from life!

  10. SAS Fiction Girl April 28, 2011 / 2:22 PM

    If I stop reading a book, it’s generally because the entirety of the writing or subject matter is awful. Though inconsistencies, typos, and other editing errors distract and annoy me, I’ll usually read through them.
    The one series in which the main character annoyed me to the point I stopped reading was Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series. That woman could do everything. She was a forensic pathologist, chief medical examiner, teacher, tutor, master chef, a lawyer, a lover, a fighter, a joker, a smoker, and a midnight toker, to name a few. It was just ridiculous after a while.
    Also, your title is perfect and so true.

    • jannatwrites April 28, 2011 / 8:27 PM

      I read this one book that had an interesting concept (the main character’s dead father would help her solve the mystery). I could’ve gone for the father’s spirit guiding her in dreams or something like that, but in this book, he would just pop into her office, her car, or anywhere, smoking his cigar and they would have conversations. To make it worse, some people commented on the cigar smoke smell, while others appeared oblivious to it.

      I haven’t read Patricia Cornwell, but that character sounds like a true multi-tasker. It makes me feel like such an underachiever with just the family and (only one) career! I admire the fact that you could stop reading. I feel compelled to finish a book anyway.

      I cracked up as you went into “The Joker” lyrics 🙂 Thanks for the laugh, Jen.

  11. Cities of the Mind April 28, 2011 / 9:47 PM

    Often. And the more I write, the more often it happens, but I’m becoming more attuned to the gimmicks of the trade, and I know a cheap shot when I see one. Add that to paying more and more attention to the minutia of human interaction (to avoid precisely that problem) and I find myself being jarred right out of the flow by particularly inconsistent or unlikely moments.

    • jannatwrites April 28, 2011 / 10:01 PM

      You seem to have an analytical mind, so I can see how you would be drawn to what doesn’t fit in writing. I hope being so tuned in doesn’t ruin your reading experiences.

      I find myself picking out ‘mistakes’ when I’m reading a novel for fun. If I’m lucky, I find a great story that will pull me in so I don’t notice as much!

      Thanks for stopping by, Connor!

  12. Amanda Hoving April 29, 2011 / 11:54 AM

    Yes, I have stopped reading! Unbelievable characters, plots, situations and circumstances are a big turn-off. There *is* a suspension of belief when reading fiction, BUT, the unrealistic points must be presented in a believable way.

    • jannatwrites April 29, 2011 / 8:32 PM

      I agree, Amanda. I can handle fake street names/landmarks in a real city, but I can’t go along with an actual landmark that is incorrectly described (either by appearance or location in the city.) Of course, I only catch this if I have some familiarity with the area, which doesn’t happen often 😉

      Thanks for stopping by today!

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