This article first appeared on the Writers Fun Zone.

I’m working on a story in which my protagonist is on an unpaid leave from the CIA. The story concerns an unlikely adventure she engages in during this off time, and the way she handles it helps her to decide if the CIA is the right career choice for her. In a beta read, a friend pointed out that my character could face serious consequences—even prison—merely for making a phone call that wasn’t over a secure channel. While my friend does not work for the CIA, she knows people who do, and I had to sit down and think about the limits of realism in my story. If my friend did not believe my premise, would anybody else?

Credibility for readers

My go-to example for credibility is always the film ET. Did I think that alien was real? I sure did. Did I believe those kids got on their bikes and rode into the sky? You bet I did. So can my character make a phone call that doesn’t land her in the clink? What does “credibility” mean in the world of fiction?

Every story begins with a “what if” situation that might be hard to believe in real life:

  • What if a small-town waitress with telepathic powers fell in love with a vampire? (Dead until Dark by Charlaine Harris)
  • What if a home-loving hobbit goes on a quest to find the treasure guarded by a dragon? (The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkein)

Even novels that seem grounded in reality, or that are based on true stories, have a “what-if” scenario:

  • What if an early, slave-owning president of the United States fell in love with a slave? (Sally Hemings, by Barbara Chase-Riboud)
  • What happens in the nineteenth century when an expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness seeks a pardon for a woman convicted of murdering her employer and his housekeeper and mistress? (Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood)

Fantasy first

Readers pick up a novel for its fantasy element. They want to go to interesting places and meet interesting people in the pages or pixels you write. Remember the first rule of fiction: your story has to be better than real life.

But the corollary is equally important: whatever you make up has to be true at its core.

For example, if I said I lived in a small town, had telepathic powers, and was in love with a vampire, you’d have serious doubts about my sanity. But if you picked up Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, you’d accept that the actions and characters in the stories, while real to the book, wouldn’t happen in real life.

More than a world

To enjoy the book—to believe the story premise or fantasy—you need more than a make-believe world. You need to know the inner truths of the characters. Your characters’ actions in response to the story premise must be reasonable, justified, and believable in the world you’ve created. They need to follow its rules.

That’s the mechanics. How they react to that world is what makes your story memorable.

Add the emotion

Let’s go back to the small-town waitress with telepathic powers who’s in love with a vampire. Because her conflicts focus on small towns, waitressing, telepathy, and vampires, readers believe that world because it’s consistent. And because Sookie is brave, kind, and helpful in a world of paranormal phenomena, and her reactions to her situation demonstrate her courage, the series became a best-seller.

But if Charlaine Harris had added a time-traveling best friend, dinosaur attack, and rescue by aliens who arrive on a boat captained by SEAL Team 6, most readers probably would have lost interest. That world is unbelievable, precisely because anything goes. It has no rules. And when anything goes, it’s hard for readers to find the story thread—and it’s impossible for an author to give characters depth.

In the end, your readers won’t believe you.

Now what?

So what about my character who’s on leave from the CIA, who really should not under any circumstances make a call that’s not on a secure channel? For now, although her best friend warns her not to, she does so anyway, thus demonstrating her unfitness for the job. Will readers believe that? I’ll find out after the next revision pass—and beta read.

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