I’ll be writing about the video Making Your Story Believable Even When It’s Unbelievable – How to write convincing characters, from the writing advice series I’m doing on YouTube with Jonathan McKinney.
If you are writing in the fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal, or sci-fi genres, you’re going to be writing scenarios for your characters that are, technically, unbelievable. In reality, people don’t believe that the White House is going to be blown up by aliens or that witches and wizards are being trained in magic in a big school, yet we are able to believe it in the story because of how it’s written.
Characters Build Believability
The way to make your unbelievable stories feel real, is by having your characters react in a real way. As long as your characters behave in a way that feels realistic, the most unbelievable story will still work. Where this often goes wrong, is when a character is suddenly an expert in something for no reason.
For instance, if you write aliens landing and your Protagonist is suddenly an expert in alien language, with no foreshadowing, no evidence in their past that would explain it, that would be unbelievable. The fact that aliens landing is quite unbelievable doesn’t matter, it’s how your character reacts to it that will boot your audience out.
Another temptation you might have is to change your character’s personality on a pin, just because it suits your story in that moment. So, aliens have landed, but this time the most underconfident and shy character you have is in the best position to go and try to communicate with them, so you write that they do it. Again, your audience will go with you on the aliens landing, but you’ll lose them if your character behaves incorrectly.
Focus on How Your Characters React
For any circumstances you write, no matter how unbelievable and unrelatable they seem, put a lot of focus and energy into making sure your characters respond to it in a way that is believable and relatable.
No matter how extraordinary the situation you’re writing is your audience can believe in it. However, as soon as your audience stops reading or watching to think about how nobody would do that, nobody would say that, or wonder how come a character can suddenly do something they couldn’t do before, you’ve lost them.
Characters Are Genre Aware
Another thing to consider is, your characters will be genre aware. If they live in our world, you cannot introduce characters to vampires, ghosts, werewolves, zombies etc., and have them unaware of what those things are. You have to reflect that in how they behave towards whatever supernatural story element you’ve introduced.
A really good example of this being done well is in Shaun of the Dead, when zombies are introduced to the story, they acknowledge how crazy it is.
Having characters reference pop culture examples of whatever it is they’re dealing with is a really good way of connecting those characters to your audience. If you’re writing for people who came of age in the noughties, and vampires or werewolves are introduced to the story, then it would be believable to your audience that some of those characters would reference Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Twilight.
The way to get around needing to have characters with knowledge or skills they need for the story or have a personality arc that makes them behave in a way the story situation requires, is to foreshadow. Always foreshadow.
For instance, in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, when Dr. Ian Malcolm’s daughter Kelly does the impressive gymnast flip that boots a velociraptor out of a window and saves the day, it’s been mentioned previously about how talented she is at gymnastics. Had the previous mentions of her gymnastic training not been done, the audience would have been immediately booted from the story as the ability would seem nonsensical. As it is, it’s far fetched and ludicrous as an idea, but it still works for the story.
If you write yourself into a situation where you need a character to do amazing gymnastics to save your other characters from a velociraptor, don’t let the fact that the scenario is ridiculous stop you. In and of itself, the situation is unbelievable, but if you foreshadow it correctly and make sure your characters all respond to it in a believable way, your story won’t come across as unbelievable.
Anything you write into your story that feels like it has come out of nowhere, but needed to happen in the moment, can be fixed.
By editing your story, you can make any scenario seem real by carefully controlling your characters. If you need a character to be able to boot a velociraptor in the face, go back into your story and find a reason why a character’s ability at gymnastics are either mentioned or demonstrated in the earlier part of your story, at least once but preferably twice, for a completely different reason.
Always remember, any unbelievable story concept will work, as long as your characters behave in a believable way.
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