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.
Readers of genre fiction often come to it for heroes. That’s not just acceptable, but to me, that’s terrific. That doesn’t mean you have to write “cookie cutter heroes,” it just means people like to read stories of good triumphing over evil—we always have—and that’s okay. But often I hear from readers, and in a few cases even professional editors who should know better, who question the decisions of characters from a detached, too-logical point of view.
Why would this character do thus and so when it’s clearly a mistake? Surely he knows this is going to result in the bad outcome in Chapter 8, so why do it? Why is she afraid, when it’s just the cat? He would know that sound is the geyser and not a dragon.
This thinking assumes that everyone—or at least our mighty, infallible heroes—are incapable of screwing up, of misinterpreting events, of being wrong, of allowing incorrect assumptions and prejudices from coloring their responses.
In fact, that sort of cold, logical detachment is your surest path to that cookie cutter character we all dread. If everyone always does the right thing, always knows exactly what to do and flawlessly executes every time, there’s no story, no conflict, no danger, no tension.
I’ve been reading Columbine by Dave Cullen, a fascinating, detailed account of the tragic high school shootings, and I came to this passage this morning:
Rumors about a third shooter have continued right up to the present day, but publicly, it didn’t take long for investigators to put them to rest. Eric and Dylan were correctly identified by witnesses who knew them. No one else turned up on the surveillance videos or the 911 audio. Witnesses’ accounts were remarkably consistent about a tall shooter and a short one—but there seemed to be two of each: two in T-shirts and two in trench coats. “As soon as I learned Eric’s coat was left outside on the landing, I knew what had happened there,” [FBI investigator] Fuselier said. Witnesses exchanged stories, and reports of two guys in T-shirts and two in trench coats quickly turned into four shooters. Dylan’s decision to leave his coat on until he reached the library made for more combinations, and the number multiplied over the afternoon. The killers also lobbed pipe bombs in every direction. Their gunfire shattered windows and ricocheted off walls, ductwork, and stairs. Many kids heard crashes or explosions and positively identified the location as the source of activity rather than the destination. Several witnesses insisted that they had spotted a gunman on the roof. What they had seen was a maintenance man adjusting the air-conditioning unit.
So what accounted for all the confusion? “Eyewitness testimony, in general, is not very accurate,” one investigator explained. “Put that together with gunshots going off and just the most terrifying situation in their life, what they remember now may not be anywhere near what really happened.” Human memory can be erratic. We tend to record fragments: gunshots, explosions, trench coats, terror, sirens, screams. Images come back jumbled, but we crave coherence, so we trim them, adjust details, and assemble everything together in a story that makes sense. We record vivid details, like the scraggly ponytail flapping against the dirty blue T-shirt of the boy fleeing just ahead. All the way out of the building, a witness may focus on that swishing hair. Later, she remembers a glimpse of the killer: he was tall and lanky—did he have scraggly hair? It fits together, and she connects it. Soon the killer is wearing the dirty blue T-shirt as well. Moments later, and forever after, she is convinced that’s exactly what she saw.
Investigators identified nearly a dozen common misperceptions among library survivors. Distortion of time was rampant, particularly chronology. Witnesses recalled less once the killers approached them, not more. Terror stops the brain from forming new memories. A staggering number insisted they were the last ones out of the library—once they were out, it was over. Similarly, most of those injured, even superficially, believed they were the last ones hit. Survivors also clung to reassuring concepts: that they were actually hiding by crouching under tables in plain sight. Memory is notoriously unreliable. It happens even with the best witnesses.
I’m willing to stipulate that you’ll want your hero to be at least a little cooler under fire than the average suburban high school student, caught entirely unaware by an event they’d never been prepared for. Fine, but if this is an extreme example of the way people think under pressure it should at least point out that cold, detached logic simply isn’t something that can be readily accessed in the heat of the moment.
And this extends beyond that point, too. Note the example of the ponytail. This detail is enmeshed with another and in that person’s mind it becomes a fact, and decisions are later made based on that fact. The sound of a gunshot came from over there, I’m sure of it—but that doesn’t make it true.
This sort of uncertainty doesn’t make your characters weak or stupid or gullible, it makes them human. And this is precisely the sort of element that not only gives your characters dimension, but can fuel major plot points. Whole books can come from a hero’s certainty that he’s on the trail of the man who killed his father—until it turns out the man he’s chasing has been innocent all along. There were four shooters, and we must find the other two . . . and only in the end is it revealed that there really were only two, and the hero finds closure in some other way than revenge.
Aren’t these richer stories than one in which a hero is confronted with a clear problem, always does exactly the right thing at the right time, and speedily brings the whole thing to a neat conclusion based on a logical and carefully drawn-out plan that is flawlessly executed?
Wake me when that one’s over.