Thursday, September 30, 2010

For Every Action There Is An Equal And Opposite Reaction

While this idea might be seen more often in science classes, the principle applies just as much when it comes to writing and understanding characters. It is also one reason why I will pass on projects when characters in stories seem to defy the basic laws of physics. In other words, when things happen in stories, when other characters say or do something, the other characters fail to act in an appropriate manner.

I honestly believe that writers seem so focused on getting their characters to that next element in the plot, or that next great scene, that they often fail to think how a real human being would act in one of those situations. It is that lack of an appropriate response that often makes the story unbelievable and certainly makes it hard for the reader to fully become immersed in the story.

Understanding human nature and behaviors is crucial to successful romance novels. Since this is all about relationships, everything the characters do must be believable.

I talk about this a lot with romantic suspense, but it certainly does apply to every genre out there. If, for example, the heroine is being stalked by an abusive husband, the odds of them even thinking about the hero (who always seems to be in a law enforcement role) in a sexual context is highly unlikely. If someone is running and wants to stay hidden from the public, they certainly won't be putting themself in a public situation.

What about if someone is fired from a job? Whether it is justified or not, there will be anger and not simply a casual attitude of "oh, well, I guess I'll pack it up and head to the Bahamas." I read a submission once where the heroine just learned that her farm was beyond foreclosure status. There was no money in the bank and things looked bleak. And yet, what did she do? She took the kids out to dinner and then bought them clothes on credit. Sure the kids needed "some" new school clothes (there was an emphasis of them not needing a lot) and sure they needed to eat, but spending money like that just doesn't work.

Let's try this one... If a character has a phobia of some sort, they won't be jumping into any situation that might force them to face that phobia.

The point of all this is simple. Stop and think about what your character is doing. Is this normal? Would a "real" person ever do something like that or react that way? You might want to check before you start sending out those projects. That might be a key reason for a rejection.



  1. I appreciate what you're saying Scott but in the context of the writer with the woman facing beyond foreclosure -- Sometimes in real life, people act the exact opposite of what you think they would do, so in terms of this character taking her children shopping and out to eat on credit, well, that seems pretty viable to me.

    Truthfully, I know if I (as a person) were faced with the inevitable, I think you might find me at Macy's and then the Olive Garden. I mean, there's nothing left to lose is there.

    Desperation makes us do strange things. And no, our characters don't always do what we want them to, but I think the writer was right in allowing her characters one last big hurrah.

  2. Oh, this is one of my pet peeves. It's one of those big "Huh?!" moments when you're reading--when I'm critiquing, I comment on it, and when I'm reading a pubb'd book, I wonder who did/if anyone did the editing. I think we all have this stuff in our early drafts, because--yes, we're trying to get that plot in and we're writing quickly, but we have to remember to connect, have our characters react: cause AND effect.

    Mini-rant. :) Great post. Thanks.

  3. Actually...Christopher Reeve had a lifelong fear (phobia) of horses. So he forced himself to ride and that's how the accident occurred that left him paralyzed for the rest of his shortened life.

    Not saying it ends well, just saying that people sometimes do things they are terrified of and the story can be quite dramatic.

  4. Hi Scott,

    Actually, I think the concept of phobias, fears, or rigidly-held beliefs of a specific character can be used to highlight the pivotal/crisis moment in a well-drawn story. I think, done right, (where the h/heroine has to face/overcome or deal with anyone of these stumbling blocks) they can be used to convey emotions and/or convictions better than any narrative could. That being said, first, there has to be a certain amount of commonsense attached to an author’s attempt to justify the original fear and then follow-up that up with things that are relevant and make sense too.

    Example: A hero who fears for everyone’s safety shouldn’t take over doing a potentially hazardous task to keep those people previously doing it - safe. Commonsense and human nature (if your hero is hero-worthy) should suggest that the task shouldn't be done at all - because it’s unsafe for anyone to be doing it!

    I just hate it when a character's motivations or needs don’t make sense.