Character and Credibility
This morning, doing time on my treadmill, I set aside my music and watched a few minutes of news—maybe four to five minutes of news—and in that time, I saw two members of congress behaving badly. I finished my walk and checked email, cooling down. The second email I viewed was about a congressman engaging in domestic violence—a longstanding habit verified by outside, objective forces in his divorce proceeding. That’s a generous way of putting all this, but congress-bashing isn’t the goal in this article. Personal character and credibility is the purpose. Because if I tried making any of these three “leaders” the lead in a book, it’d fall flat and stay flat.
Readers connect with characters in books through emotions. Writers should never forget that. Nor should they forget that if readers don’t form an emotional bond with characters, regardless of what kind of story you’re telling, readers won’t care. They might read (or toss the book into the trash before finishing it) but they will not be invested in the story, the characters, or the outcome.
What that means is the reason you, the writer, wrote the book will be lost because readers are indifferent (or ticked off, which is decidedly worse. Either way, you’ve created a lose/lose/lose situation. Lose for the writer, the book, and the reader.
Now some stories are plot-intensive. Some are not. We have read and loved forever slice-of-life stories where nothing major happens, we just peek inside someone’s life for a given time and see their world from their perspective. The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter if a story is plot or character driven, whether it’s a huge saga, a tense thriller, or a slice-of-life memoir, if readers don’t relate to the characters in the story, the book’s not going to resonate with them, and that translates to bad things for the writer.
I say relate rather than like because we have read books about people we don’t like who do awful things, but they retain redeeming qualities we respect, admire, or fear—emotional bonds. We might disagree with what the character is doing, but we understand on an emotional level why s/he is doing it. Have you ever done the wrong thing for the right reason? That’s an example of what I’m talking about here.
Human beings are messy. They didn’t just get that way; they’ve always been messy. We understand that, we relate to it, and we want messy, imperfect but credible people in our lives and in our books. Perfect people are boring, and we know they can’t really be perfect. So what imperfections are they hiding? Inquiring minds want to know what to trust. Perfection makes us feel awful about ourselves and we don’t relate to perfect people who make us feel lacking. Conversely, we crave credible people.
In life, we live in shades of gray. In books, while we might see shades of gray, we want to take the journey with people we respect. Ones we admire. Ones to whom we can relate. We want to engage and to stay engaged, and to do that, we need people we can comfortably invest in to convince us their journey is worth taking.
Does a heroine or hero protagonist have to be all goodness and light? No. Absolutely, not, for the reasons stated above. But they had better be worthy of the title hero/heroine. They better be people of substance and not just fluff. They’d better have core values that resonate with our own, and be—in our minds—justly motivated to do what they do—or we’re going to be very ticked-off readers. Very disconnected, ticked-offreaders.
An example. I considered writing a story about a woman whose child had been abused by an individual. He got off on a technicality. She hunts him down and kills him. Her motivation is clear—pedophiles have a five-percent cure rate, and if the law wouldn’t stop him from being free to harm another child, she would—and she did.
Most in this situation totally connect with a mother taking this guy out. Most in this situation recognize she’s done the wrong thing—murder—but for the right reason—to protect innocent children. Most in this situation would be thoroughly disgusted by the legal technicality escape from justice. The criminal is protected, the children are not.
Others would object. He’s sick. He needs help. He shouldn’t be killed, he should be in a medical facility. That’s a pretty good basis for conflict, the spine of the story. But the pros and cons of the murder weren’t the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to explore the mother and the impact this violation of her child had on her, her child, her other children, her spouse, and the emotions that drove her to commit murder. Murder just isn’t something soccer moms often do.
So why didn’t I write the story? She was credible—I could see shades of myself and other moms in her on all levels. Her actions were logical and reasonable to her, motivated in a way grasped and understood. Her obstacles were also credible. She wasn’t sure exactly how to go about murdering someone and not ending up in prison the rest of her life. The way she goes about finding out was also logical and reasonable.
In short, she was a woman on a mission. She didn’t see herself as evil but as a protector. She saw herself as a good person, a reasonable and logical person with common sense. She watched her child struggle to cope with what had been done, and it gnawed at her. So by the time the technicality arose and the criminal was set free, the mom was at the end of her proverbial rope.
The elements should have worked—and yet they didn’t. Why?
Because the way she neutralized the threat was not admirable. She killed a man. Okay, we might or might not do the same thing in her situation—we’d probably want to, whether or not we actually did. We definitely relate. But, with our psychic distance from the problem(s), we still would rather experience an alternate solution.
We’d rather she fought and won at getting stronger laws that protected the victim more and the criminal less. We’d rather she sought and discovered ways to help her child cope, her family recover, so that they again became a balanced family. These alternatives have the potential to help other children, too.
What makes for strong stories isn’t about just revenge, it’s about a change occurring in the character that makes her a different person than she had been before the inciting incident—in this case, the attack on her child.
If nothing changes, why take the journey? The killing of the criminal was the goal. Okay, she did it. Story’s over. And that’s why I didn’t write the story.
The conflict and resolution deal with the physical, and that’s not enough. We need balance and depth, and to get it, we must also deal with the emotional and the spirtual dimensions of the human beings involved.
Those aspects are borne of character. The character’s credibility. What if this wasn’t the first time this mother had taken the law into her own hands? What if it was the 20th or the 60th or she’d lost count? What would drive her to do these things? She’s a soccer mom, normal, like us, and yet she does these things? Was she a victim once? Someone she know and love a victim? Is her mind bent or broken? How does the criminal justify his actions against children? What motivates him? How does the child’s dad feel? What does he think? Have he and his wife discussed her intentions? See what I mean?
The emotional brings in the spiritual, defines and challenges our beliefs, and adds those needed layers of depth to bring us into the story as an active participant through bonding. We can relate.
It might sound a little superficial, but it is not. It is critical. We want to take the fictional journey with characters who aren’t like us. They’re the kind of people we want to be. We see ourselves as worthy and credible—people of character. And that is how our readers want to see and associate with our characters.
Ironically, we feel the same way about our congressmen/women. We want them to be admirable people of character and credible, too. Why? They’re our leaders. We don’t want to doubt our own judgment on who we chose to follow. We want to respect ourselves for the choices we made.
People or story characters, we seek people of character who are credible—for them, and for us.
© 2014, Vicki Hinze. Hinze is the award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of nearly thirty novels in a variety of genres including, suspense, mystery, thriller, and romantic or faith-affirming thrillers. Her latest release is Down and Dead in Dixie. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in Philosophy, Theocentric Business and Ethics. Hinze’s online community: Facebook. Books. Twitter. Contact. www.vickihinze.com.