Aug 24 2009

How to Beat Disbelief and Immerse Readers

1.  YOUR READERS NEED TO KNOW WHAT TO BELIEVE.

  • Characters should act consistently.  It’s usually better to err on the side of a trait being too strong/consistent than too weak/half-hearted.  When characters grow and change, his change should be caused by something understandable and visible.  Don’t leave your readers wondering why this character is acting like that.
  • Powers like time-travel, memory-alteration, impersonation and sometimes resurrection can make it very difficult to understand what is going on.  (Is that memory real or imagined?  Who remembers what? Who’s dead?)  I would not recommend adding these powers lightly.  If readers are confused, they will be jarred from the story.  Don’t make the reader work to understand the basic facts of your story.
  • Don’t be coy with readers.  If the point-of-view character knows something relevant (like backstory or something he knows or can observe), the reader is entitled to know the same.  I strongly recommend against trying to create drama by having the POV hide information from the readers.  “Surprise, I was the killer all along!”  If you hide information that the reader feels entitled to, he will probably feel angry rather than satisfied when you finally reveal the truth.


2.  YOUR PLOT SHOULD BE REALISTIC ENOUGH TO FIT THE MOOD.

  • Don’t wrap your characters in plot armor.  If the reader ever wonders if the character only survived that last fight because it’s bad form to kill the hero halfway through the book, you’ve already lost him.  This is particularly problematic when the character escapes a tight spot because of something beyond his control, like a misfire.  Let’s say that the Stormtroopers try shooting at your hero repeatedly but never seem to hit.  That would make more sense if your character were doing something to make them miss, like taking cover, using camouflage, knocking out the lights, using cover fire, using supernatural abilities, etc.
  • In a superhero story, I would recommend staying away from 1940s (Golden Age) tropes unless you have a compelling reason to.  Elements like capes, [Adjective]-Man names, catchphrases and goofy weaknesses generally aren’t effective in a modern straight-up action story.
  • Avoid deus ex machinas.  Try not to let your hero passively get saved by something beyond his control.  It’s disappointing and unsatisfying when the hero is saved by luck or (usually) the timely intervention of a third party.  If you absolutely have to have him get saved by guardian angels, make sure the hero plays an important role.  For example, maybe his mentor smuggles him a cell-key when the villain has imprisoned him, but everything after that is up to the hero.

3.  FLESH OUT AND MOTIVATE YOUR CHARACTERS.

  • Unless your villains or antagonists are forces of nature (like Godzilla), it’s generally best to give them a motive other than being evil or nasty.  This is particularly a problem when the antagonists are parents, bosses or bullies.  Likewise, don’t forget to give your heroes a better motivation than “it’s the right thing to do.”  When the going gets rough and girlfriends are threatened and bones are broken, that will probably seem flimsy.  Why is it that it’s all up to the hero and his allies rather than any of the other millions of people in your world?  Why are they more strongly motivated to save the day than anyone else?
  • Give the characters flaws.  A character that rarely makes decisions that the readers will disagree with is probably not too interesting.  And a Mary Sue.  Flaws help make characters more three-dimensional and believable.  Often, they even help reinforce the strengths of a character.  For example, Han Solo and Captain Kirk are so brave that they’re reckless.  Reed Richards is so smart that he’s a bit removed from reality.

5 responses so far

5 Responses to “How to Beat Disbelief and Immerse Readers”

  1. Marissaon 24 Aug 2009 at 10:40 pm

    Great article, B. Mac.

    Responses…

    1.3: This is very true. However, be careful not to info-dump, or put in information for no reason. For example, your character may be fully aware that they’re (for example) an orphan, but once they’re in their teenaged years, they won’t be sitting there thinking ‘I’m an orphan I’m an orphan I’m an orphan’. It’ll be a fact of life. You’ll have to somehow bring in a mention of other kids’ parents and show your orphan character’s reactions to that to have a reason to bring up his/her lack of parents.

    I’m not sure if I’m being clear enough… I just mean that there are times where the character “withholds information” without meaning to. Just because it doesn’t come up amidst everything else that’s going on.

    2.2: I kinda want to see a genuine Adjective-Man. Laying down a firm, violent, well-deserved beating on all those big, bad, nasty, ugly villains.

    Parody, of course.

  2. Grueleron 07 Mar 2013 at 1:08 pm

    What about “It’s the right thing to do” as motivation for a villain?

  3. B. McKenzieon 07 Mar 2013 at 4:12 pm

    In some sense, I think pretty much every villain (besides non-sentient forces of nature like Godzilla) thinks “It’s the right thing to do.” If they didn’t think it was the right thing to do, why would they be doing it? (One possibility: they’re deeply conflicted and/or coerced).

  4. Proxie#0on 11 Oct 2015 at 8:00 pm

    Am I the only one appalled by the amount of plot armor that the characters in Godzilla have?

  5. B. McKenzieon 11 Oct 2015 at 9:34 pm

    “Am I the only one appalled by the amount of plot armor that the characters in Godzilla have?” I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know anything there.

    If you’re familiar with Heroes (particularly Claire), Green Lantern, and the most recent Fantastic Four movie, those strike me as particularly egregious examples where a superhero does pretty much whatever he wants without consequences. E.g. Hal Jordan is pretty consistently an incompetent employee and makes a decision that costs his company a huge military contract, and the company lays off half of its employees, but the boss’ daughter intervenes to have him spared. First, plausible consequences (e.g. getting fired or demoted) would have been more interesting, OR if you need the character to stay on at his old job, at least have him save himself (e.g. earning a favor and/or convincing a character to give him another chance because of something he’s earned).

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