My husband and I have experienced an event that was sitcom worthy. Often we sit around and laugh about the mass exodus from Florida that occurred with the near hit of the monster hurricane, Floyd. We left town with three cars, two in-laws, two sons, and five animals in tow. We had characters. We had mishaps. We had adventure. We had hilarity. However, when we stop laughing, we always end with the same sentence: “No one would ever believe us.”
This last week I was involved in a discussion with a writer who was told that his characters and his scenes were not realistic. This author declared, “But the characters are based on real events and real people.”
Thus we learn that truth can be stranger than fiction.
Authors walk a thin line when it comes to plausibility of character.
On one hand, fiction is truth on steroids. Readers will buy the fact that one man can be a spy one moment and a loving father another (True Lies). That a man can go deep into the jungle and rescue a reporter, return to the states, and be sent on a mission to stop chemical warfare from killing millions (Deadly Additive by Donn Taylor), but then you put a character in a normal situation and the reader has problems with the story.
Why is that?
I call it lack of credibility.
If a novels main backdrop is a hospital and the main characters are doctors and nurses, there are protocols and medical jargon, there is a certain way a doctor will behave, how they will address a patient versus a colleague or a nurse. Place a doctor in an emergency room and have him speak and behave like a store owner, and credibility is lacking.
Likewise, portraying a bait shop owner as if he’s a medical doctor isn’t very credible either unless the fact that the bait shop owner is a retired physician is layered into the story. And what an interesting story—and character—that could be.
That’s the key. A doctor can act contrary to the way a reader believes a doctor should act, but only if the correct foundation is laid. For example, the doctor is a jokester. On the job, he treats everyone like his best friend. He jokes with his patients. He addresses medical issues without medical jargon. Something, though, has led the doctor to this type of behavior. What could it be? Perhaps when the doctor goes home, he has to live with the demons of regret and remorse. Maybe the life of a doctor is too much for him to handle. He grieves over each patient he loses. He can’t forgive himself even when the fault is not his. At home, the walls close in on him. On the job, he has to cope. He does so with laughter. After all, wasn’t it Mark Twain who said, after the death of his beloved brother, “The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in Heaven.” While I only agree with the first part of Mr. Twain’s quote, it does lend itself to some thought, and that thought can lend itself to great characterization.
When examining your novel for credibility of character, make sure that the reader understands why the character behaves the way he/she behaves. This doesn’t mean burying the reader under pounds of back story. It doesn’t mean the reader has to know everything at once. What it does mean is allowing the reader to meet the character a little at a time. If you have a character like our fictional doctor above, drop hints that he isn’t quite right in the eyes of others or that there is a Mr. Hyde to his Dr. Jekyll.