Character thought and credibility

From Writers Helping Writers, this: The Link Between Character Thought and Credibility

This post caught my eye because it seems like it might dovetail with the reasons I didn’t finish the first book of the Vardeshi duology. I could see perfectly well that the Vardeshi aliens are not superior to humans, but (in the 75% of the book that I read) the human protagonist never entertained any doubts regarding Vardeshi superiority. The protagonist therefore lost credibility and (sorry, but this is inevitable) so did the author. Then when a plot twist occurred that I didn’t like, I was not prepared to be tolerant and wait to see what happened. Therefore, the DNF decision.

I’m not sure this is the kind of thing this post about character thought and credibility has in mind, but it’s what I thought of immediately. Let’s take a look at the post …

Readers come into a story eager to greet a new world, willing to temporarily suspend their belief in the way the world works to explore your vision of the alternatives. They place their trust in you to make it feel plausible. … Stories that fail to ring true break that trust. These brittle, hollow stories break reader immersion again and again before finally driving readers away.

Yes! Yes yes yes! That is what happened. I was willing to accept the Vardeshi and Avery’s viewpoint, but I kept not finding the aliens plausible and very particularly not finding Avery’s reactions to the aliens plausible. And that kept breaking immersion and yes, that is why I was unprepared to tolerate a plot twist I didn’t find believable.

[R]eaders are keen to be led into all sorts of farfetched nooks and crannies. They’ll overlook a certain amount of hand-waving and even step willingly over minor plot holes as long as the characters are all in. … If characters forge a fathomable path into the story through their thoughts and reactions and emotions, readers will dive in alongside them.  

Now the post goes off in a different direction. The emphasis here is that failing to communicate the protagonist’s emotions is a problem, that a wooden protagonist is a problem. When the protagonist fails to react, that’s bad. This is true, but this is also just bad writing, not the same problem.

Oh, now we’re also back to the problem I experienced: When the protagonist fails to react appropriately. That’s it. That’s the issue.

If the protagonist is wooden or flat, I probably wouldn’t be reading the story in the first place. I mean, I might, because sometimes I can enjoy a novel with flat characters if the story itself is engaging enough. But when I’m reading any novel, then if the protagonist fails to react in a way I think is obviously the way any normal person or that specific character should react, that kicks me out of the story hard and I’m likely to stop.

This reminds me of my problem with, um, right: Control Point by Myke Cole. The story wasn’t the problem. I just could not believe in the reactions and actions of the protagonist (or the other characters). This is probably the most negative review I’ve ever posted and I did feel somewhat weird about posting a review this negative. I was so outraged by the protagonist’s failure to react appropriately in a novel that was otherwise well written, I think that’s why. If a novel is just bad, I don’t read it and don’t feel inclined to post a review. Apparently this exact kind of problem bothers me much more than just bad writing.

Yep, I think the linked post nailed it. I would say maybe “reactions” rather than “thought.” But yes, the protagonist has just got to react believably and appropriately or else the protagonist and then the author lose credibility. And if that keeps happening, that’s a failure that leads, to me, to a DNF for the book and permanent reluctance to try anything else by that author.

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7 thoughts on “Character thought and credibility”

  1. Yes, this is absolutely a problem that I will DNF a book for – or throw it at the wall in rage when the denouement culminates in a decision that the character would not make according to their personality and previous reactions to situations.
    On the other hand, if a character makes an unexpected decision that is absolutely in character but drives the plot in a direction I did not foresee, that’s going to make me want to read more. That’s part of why I like No Foreign Sky so much, actually, and what made me keep reading until a ridiculous hour of the morning.

  2. And then there’s the character – secondary, in the example I’m thinking of – who is thought to be one sort, and then in practically his last scene does something that lots of readers scream is out of character. But the attentive reader, or one whose hackles went up when he first appeared but couldn’t place why (until putting in a fair amount of effort) says ‘yes, that’s what he really is.’

    That’s good and tricky writing.

  3. @ Elaine,
    I can think of several main characters – Eugenides in The Thief and the MC of The Icarus Hunt by Timothy Zahn, can’t remember his name – who pull that off beautifully. But the thing is, that comes down to foreshadowing. If you have no hints whatsoever that the character is not what they seem, that’s just bad writing and bad characterization.
    But it’s not like I have strong opinions on this subject or anything . . .

  4. The Thief did not have enough foreshadowing. Either of the twist, or that the narrator was deliberately constructing the story and so might be lying. Either one would have worked.

  5. I thought there was plenty of foreshadowing there – too much, and you ruin the twist. But, clearly that’s partially a matter of personal taste.

  6. Personally, I thought The Thief was fine as far a foreshadowing goes, but I’ve always thought — and yes, this is a matter of personal taste — that Eugenides changes too much between the first book and the second. It’s not a matter of shifting pov or anything. I just think the tone of the first book is not consistent with the tone of the rest of the series. Which doesn’t mean I hate the first book, but does mean than when I re-read any of the books in the series, I always EITHER re-read just the first book OR re-read starting with the second book.

  7. I get that – it’s a tricky series to recommend sometimes because those first two books are so different.

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