In my first college creative writing class, nearly every piece I turned in came back with the word unbelievable scribbled somewhere in the margins. It got to be so that that was the first thing I would look for when I got my papers back. It was incredibly frustrating. After all, I’m a fantasy writer. Doesn’t fantasy require some suspension of belief?
Well, yes. To a point. But here’s the thing that I didn’t entirely grasp at that point: unbelievable does not equal unrealistic. Fantasy is unrealistic by very nature. However, when you’re reading along in Harry Potter, does it ever occur to you to think it unbelievable that Hermione would conjure a swarm of golden birds to sic on Ron? No! Why? Because believability is based in world rules and character motivations, not similarity to reality.
Okay, that’s all well and good, but I was still pretty put out at my professor’s constant harping on the unbelievability of my characters. After all, I knew they had motivation to act the way they did. I knew exactly what was going on in their minds.
But he didn’t.
And there’s the problem I missed for a very long time. There are certain gaps that readers have to fill: the face of your dashing hero, the sleazy squeak of your villain’s voice, etc. But motivation should never be one of those gaps. No, you don’t have to be entirely truthful about it right away—misleading readers is part of the fun. But what your character does should always be accompanied by a why that is crystal clear to the reader.
This is definitely a point where critique groups come in handy. When your characters have been living inside your head for so long, it may seem painfully obvious to you why your characters are acting in a certain way, but your readers may be reading something completely different. You don’t want your readers to think your character is a murderous maniac when he’s really supposed to be failing miserably at being mean. (Yes, this was a recent point of confusion with one of my characters.)