This week, let’s take a look at another common complaint from readers, and one I find particularly difficult to take seriously. I’ve opined enough by now—I hope—on the subject of realism vs. plausibility and the complaint, “It was unrealistic.” But this one, which is related in many ways, is lots more troublesome, and in some cases can actually be blamed on the reader.

By now you’ve probably noticed that I tend to side with the reader in almost every case. If most people hate your ending it probably means your ending sucked. If most people think your characters do things for no reason, it probably means you haven’t paid enough attention to motivation. Let’s leave aside for today the very difficult to answer question, “How do you know you’re hearing from ‘most people?’ ” and get into a complaint from readers that I think is unfair to the author, and based on bad reading.

Yes, folks, it is possible to read badly. It is possible to miss stuff, misinterpret stuff, over- or under-think things. It’s possible to not “get it.” And ultimately every author has to walk a certain tightrope between writing down to the lowest common denominator, or risking losing some percentage of the audience who just can’t keep up. So what do we do with this complaint, which I’ve heard countless times:

He (or she) wouldn’t do that.

When you hear this complaint what you could be getting from that reader is a question of motivation, though it might be improperly phrased. Maybe the reader meant to ask: Why would this character do this? That’s better, honestly: a question rather than a statement of fact. If it’s unclear why your characters are doing what they’re doing, that’s your failing. If your readers don’t get it, that’s theirs. But, wow, can it be difficult to find that line.

First of all, if you can answer to your own satisfaction a specific question of why this character makes this decision in this scene, but you still get that question, then you should take a second look at how you’re conveying that motivation. You might find that a sentence here or there—some little detail—could help bolster that motivation.

But I have been confronted with “he wouldn’t do that,” often enough that I’ve noticed a disturbing trend…

Read the rest in…

Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.


—Philip Athans


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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to HE WOULDN’T DO THAT

  1. effimai says:

    really good post 🙂 And the end is brilliiant x

  2. E. A. Hughes says:

    Reblogged this on Vilu Nilenad and commented:
    Some food for thought: a great post on one of my favourite subjects — character motivation. Well worth a read for all you aspiring writers!

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