DO YOU WANT YOU READERS TO BELIEVE in your characters? The one thing you can never do is appeal to the facts. In a news story you quote sources; in history you cite documents. But in fiction you have no such recourse – the single worst defence of an unbelievable event or character is to say, “But that really happened once.”
Fiction doesn’t deal with what happened once. Fiction deals with what happens. Your job is not to create characters who exactly match reality. Your job is to create characters who seem real, who are plausible to the audience.
This Chapter presents the tools of realism, the techniques that will earn your readers’ trust. These methods won’t make your story “truthful” – the truth of your tale arises from your unconscious choices, from your beliefs that are so ingrained that you may not even know you believe them, because it doesn’t occur to you that they might not be true. What these tools provide is the illusion of truth.
Contradictory as that sounds, it’s a vital part of storytelling. You must provide your audience with details that seem familiar and appropriate, so that they are constantly saying to themselves, “Yes, that’s right, that’s true, that’s just that the way it would be, people do that.” With each “yes” the audience becomes more convinced that you are a storyteller who knows something.
They let down their barriers of scepticism and let you lead them through the world of your story, absorbing the people and events into their memories, identifying with your heroes, making their stories a part of themselves in a way that factual stories never can. Strike a false note, and barriers go back up; your readers pull out of the story a little, each time a little more, until you’ve lost them and your story has no more power over them.
I could make this Chapter very short by telling you in a single word how to make your characters more believable: details. The more information about a character, the more the audience will believe in him.
It isn’t really that simple, though. You don’t want just any details, you want relevant, appropriate details. Nor do you want the details to stop the movement of the story any more than necessary. So the tools of realism are designed to present details about a character appropriately and effectively.
ELABORATION OF MOTIVE
The most important tool that will help your audience believe in your characters is elaboration of motive. If you don’t tell your audience what a character’s motives are, the audience will assume the obvious motive: a simple, single motive, a naked archetype or a cliché. To make characters more believable, more real, we give them more complex, even contradictory motives, and we justify them better.
In the heroic fantasy film Conan the Barbarian, young Conan’s mother is killed before his eyes. He spends the rest of the film searching for the murderer. It isn’t hard for the audience to grasp the idea that he’s looking for revenge.
Let’s suppose that you wanted to start with the same situation, but you wanted Conan to be a more believable human being. His relentless obsession with revenge is not enough to sustain a realistic novel. The easiest step is to diversity – give him other motives, other interests, purposes, and loyalties. There would be many times when he did not think of revenge.
A more daring step is to make him even more complex: He is searching for the murderer, not to kill him, but to serve him. In Conan’s mind the man’s cruelty has been transformed into justice – he killed my mother, thinks Conan, because she was weak and small. I will be strong and large, and he will find me worthy.
This kind of motivation is borderline pathological – but it is also intriguing and believable, not at all the predictable revenge cliché.
Let’s go back to Eddie Murphy’s character in Beverly Hills Cop. Like Conan, he is given the simplest of motives – revenge for the death of a friend. Since it is an almost purely Romantic story, and a comic one at that, no more realism is needed; the audience found his character believable enough for the needs of the film.
But what if we wanted to make his character more real? We’d then have to invent a richer set of motives. What if his murdered friend was someone that Murphy had treated, not well, but badly, so that Murphy’s desire for revenge is prompted no just by love but also by guilt. And let’s say Murphy’s tenacity in the case is not just because he’s competitive and doesn’t like to lose, but also because he’s afraid that he’s not very good as a cop, and if doesn’t succeed in this hard and dangerous case he won’t be able to believe in himself. Add to this a bit of arrogance – there are times when he believes he can’t fail, that he can’t even die. And maybe he needs to show off a little, too.
One of the advantages of prose fiction is that you can bring all of a character’s motives into the open. Because we can sometimes see into the characters’ minds, their thoughts and feelings, their plans and reactions, we can also watch them shift from one motive to another. We can go one layer deeper, and discover motives that the characters don’t even know they have.
Since motive is the character’s purpose or intent when he takes an action, it is not something you can add to a character and then leave the rest of the story unchanged. The pursuit of ever-deeper motives is not a trivial game played on the surface of the story. Motive is at the story’s heart. It is the most potent form of casual connection. So every revision of motive is a revision of the story.
Nora tells Pete that the man who was in her apartment was just a salesman. Pete reacts by saying cruel, vicious things to her, breaking a lamp, and storming out of her apartment. What does that scene mean?
At first glance, we might suppose Pete is insanely jealous. But what if we then learn that Pete knows the man – knows that he is a drug dealer and a former pimp? Now we understand that his rage doesn’t come from a desire to control Nora, but rather from real concern for her welfare. Nora’s life is a silent witness to him that she is somehow involved with this man – in one way or another.
After a while, Nora confesses to Pete that the man in her apartment was her brother, but she hates him and doesn’t want anyone she cares about to know that he has any connection with her. Not Pete understands her motive for lying. He’s relieved.
Still later, the reader is shown a scene that makes it clear that the visitor was not her brother at all – it revises all the information that has gone before. Events that we thought meant one thing now mean another. The present constantly revises the meaning of the past. Revelation of the past constantly revises the meaning of the present. This is the primary device of detective fiction (and psychoanalysis), but all other genres use the technique as well.
There is a cost. The discovery of motive always requires examination of a character’s thoughts, either through her dialogue with other characters, through direct telling of those thoughts, or by implication as new facts are revealed. All these examinations of motive come at the expense of action. A character who endlessly tries to understand her own motives eventually becomes a bore.
One of the surest signs of an amateur story is when strange or important events happen around the narrator or point-of-view character, and he doesn’t have an attitude toward them. Attitude is the other side of the coin of causation. Motive tells why he acts as he does; attitude is the way he reacts to outside events.
Packer talked serious business on the phone, but when he walked into the restaurant I knew it was all bluff. His suit was shiny and too small, too short in the sleeves; his tie didn’t come within six inches of his belt. I thought of asking him the name of his tailor, but he might be smart enough to know he was being insulted, and on the off chance he was an eccentric millionaire whose mother never taught him how to dress, I decided to hold off provoking him until after he paid for lunch.
This paragraph tells you something about Packer, of course – that he dresses awkwardly. You see Packer through the narrator’s eyes, and this will always colour your perception of him. The narrator feels contemptuous; so will you.
At the same time, his attitude also tells you about the narrator. He judges people by their clothing – whether they’re worth taking seriously, whether he even thinks they’re smart. Furthermore, he decides to treat this man civilly only because of a chance that he might actually have money.
This can be a complicated game. Push the narrator’s contempt for Packer far enough, and we’ll come to dislike the narrator and sympathize with Packer. If that’s what you want, then it’s working. But if you want the reader to like the narrator, you have to make sure his attitude doesn’t get too flippant, that he never descends into meanness.
Jacob was early for his appointment with Ryan’s teacher; he stood by his car for a minute, looking at the place where Ryan spent his days. The Guilford Middle School looked bleak – long flat-roofed buildings of red brick, bare windows, lots of gravel and concrete. An institution.
Going inside, Jacob hit his head on the door’s low-hanging hinge assembly, a nasty bump that made him stop and close his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, it was as if the blow had made him colour-blind. The corridor looked black and white. No, black and grey – nothing was clean enough to be called white. Bare fluorescent lights, blank walls interrupted only by doors with painted-over windows. Now Jacob understood why the only thing that ever seemed to go on at this place was discipline. It was a prison. The teacher was a warden, a poor Ryan had six months to go on his sentence.
Where does the attitude come from? At first only a few words: “bleak,” “institution.” But these words, which represent Jacob’s attitude toward the school, are enough to set the tone. After that, the reader knows to interpret all the description as negative.
Without the attitude, though, there would be no point in describing the school. If Jacob weren’t seeing it as a bleak institution, a dirty grey prison, the description would sound pretty much like every American school built since 1950. Might as well go straight to the scene with the teacher and not waste the reader’s time visualizing the school at all.
Attitude can provide the tension in the scene. Here’s the same scene twice, first without much attitude, then with more:
An attractive-looking man came up to Nora’s desk, glanced at her nameplate, and smiled at her. “Hi, Nora. Want some lunch?”
“No thanks,” she answered. “I’ll buy it somewhere else.”
He looked confused.
“Aren’t you the sandwich man? The last place I worked, they had a man who came around taking sandwich orders.”
Now let’s try the same opening, with attitude, and then go on, seeing how the scene develops.
He had a sharp, clean look about him, he was thin and wore clothes well, but Nora didn’t like the confident way he looked down at her. As if he had a right to decide things for her. She had had bosses with that look, and they always ended up talking about her clothing and how she ought to brighten up the office by wearing something a little lower in the neckline.
His gaze dropped to the nameplate on her desk, just for a moment. Then he looked her in the eye again. “Hi, Nora. Want some lunch?” he said.
That’s right, don’t ask if I want lunch with you, just ask if I want lunch. If I say no, does that mean I have to sit at my desk and go hungry? “No thanks,” she answered. “I’ll be it somewhere else.”
He looked confused. She enjoyed that.
“Aren’t you the sandwich man?” she asked. “The last place I worked, they had a man who came around taking sandwich orders.”
He wasn’t stupid – he knew he was being put down. “I was too cocky, right?”
“Not at all. I think you were just cocky enough.”
That was a mistake. She was bantering with him now, and he was the kind who thought banter was a come-on. He started into some silly story about how a guy gets nervous when he sees a beautiful woman, his genes take over and he starts to swagger and preen.
“Like peacocks and grouses. Put on a display. But that’s not me. I’m really a sensitive guy. I make Phil Donahue look like a truck driver.”
Time to put a stop to this. “You don’t want to have lunch with me. I have seven children at home and three different social diseases. I also lead men on and then yell rape when they get too close. I am every nightmare you ever had about a domineering woman. I think a man like you would call a woman like me a castrating bitch.”
He didn’t answer right away. Just looked at her, his smile gone cold. “No,” he finally said. “That’s what my mother would call you.” He stood up. “You’re new here. I asked you to lunch. My mistake, sorry.” He walked on past her desk and out the door.
That’s right, act hurt. You were just being friendly, and I jumped all over you. But I know better than that. I’ve seen that smile on too many faces not to know what lies behind it and where it leads. The man I’ll go to lunch with is the one who doesn’t speak to me until the normal course of work brings us together, and he won’t ask me to lunch until he knows my name without looking at the nameplate on my desk.
Notice how the scene shifts, increasing the tension every time. At first, Nora’s attitude disposes us to see the man as an overconfident womanizer. She stereotypes him, and we share her perception. The moment he admits the stereotype, though, by saying, “Too cocky?” our sympathy changes a little. We begin to think he might be decent after all – at least he’s smart enough to know he’s being put down. Then, when she doesn’t pay attention to the next thing he says (we know she didn’t pay attention because his dialogue isn’t given in full), we begin to wonder if she isn’t losing a romantic opportunity. (In reading fiction, we’re always looking for romantic opportunities, and there is sexual tension in this scene, beginning from the moment she noticed that he was sharp-looking, thin, and wore clothes well.) Her speech about seven children and three social diseases is way too strong – we really lose sympathy with her.
In writing this, my first off-the-shelf follow-up was to have her reflect the audience perception at that point, and feel regret for having treated him so badly. Since that was my first response, though, I questioned it, and instead let her recognize the effect that his “hurt” attitude was designed to have, and then counter it by reflecting on what she would respond favourably to. This put her attitude in perspective, and instead of our thinking that the man wasn’t so bad after all, we are now measuring him against her standard. We are fully on her side again, and though a romantic relationship with this guy is still a story possibility, we won’t be disappointed if she finds somebody else.
Also, it was because I was giving her attitude that I came up with the conflict in the first place. If I had written the whole scene the way the first version began, I would never have invented the relationship that emerged. She would have had no reason to turn him down. She would still have been a stranger to me, and so she would remain a stranger to the audience.
Wasn’t it because of her attitude that you took interest in her at all?
Notice that it is primarily through attitudes that we establish the meaning of relationships between people. Attitude tells us what people notice about each other, and what value they assign to what they see. Look at these brief scenes, all from Pete’s point of view, all giving his attitude:
“What a day,” she said.
Yeah, right. Poor dear, couldn’t she find a single dress that fit right?
“What a day,” she said.
She could say anything right now, and it would be music. He didn’t realize how much he missed her until she came back.
“What a day,” she said.
She would tell him about it. They’d have dinner, watch TV, go to bed; if she didn’t talk about how tired she was, they’d have sex. It was Tuesday. Moonlighting. So they’d definitely have sex, unless it was a rerun.
“What a day,” she said.
He looked at her sharply. Did she guess where he had been today? What he had done? No. She was too dull for that. An intelligent idea, even if one came along, would never get past her faded blue housedress.
You get the idea. The particular way your character responds to events lets the readers know who he is. It also helps you discover your character, since each bit of attitude you come up with will help you decide what your character will do next. Attitude and motive thus become inextricably intertwined. The character’s response to event X will provide his motive for doing Y and Z.
THE REMEMBERED PAST
One of the things I noticed as I started working with science fiction was that so many of the main characters seemed to come out of nowhere. They had no families; they all seemed to be loners and drifters who had no roots. This is fine, within the romantic tradition; does Dirty Harry have a mother? Does Aragorn? Darcy? Natty Bumppo? Rhett Butler? There’s not much evidence for it. But it doesn’t matter, in romance, because the story becomes the character’s past. That is, by the end of the story, you know all the things the character did earlier in the story, so that now he does have connections with other people.
To fully realize a character, however, you must give him a whole life. He has a past, an elaborate set of meaningful connections to other people: family, friends, enemies, teachers, employers.
The most obvious way to tell a character’s whole life is, of course, to begin the story with her birth. This is, however, the romantic tradition again. After all, no matter whether you’re writing romance or realism, you have to begin the story at exactly the point where the main character becomes interesting and unique. If you start at her birth, then she must be bigger than life from the cradle. John Irving made the title character of The World According to Garp extraordinary from the moment of conception, when his very odd mother, a nurse in a hospital, impregnated herself using the body of a serviceman with terminal brain damage. But you can’t always begin your stories with such bizarre events.
Instead, you will probably begin your story when your main characters are already nearly adults, with a wealth of experience behind them. How can you give a sense of the past?
The most obvious technique – and the least effective and most overused – is the flashback. The present action stops for a while as the character (or, worse, yet, the narrator) remembers some key events from days of yore. The problem with this technique is exactly that: The action stops for the flashback. Time after time I have seen student stories or stories submitted to me as an editor that began like this:
Nora peered through her windshield, trying to see through the heavy snowfall. “I can’t be last,” she murmured. It took all her concentration just to stay at forty miles per hour. Yet the events of the last few weeks kept intruding, taking her mind off the road. She thought back to her last quarrel with Pete.
[Here we get a fifteen-paragraph summary of all the stuff that happened up to yesterday.]
Her mind returned to the snowy road before her. There was her house. She pulled into the driveway and went inside. She ate dinner and watched TV, unable to concentrate, waiting for Pete’s phone call. When he hadn’t called by midnight, she went to bed.
The next morning…
Cringe along with me, please. Whatever is in that flashback wouldn’t really give Nora a past, because she has no present. The flashback won’t provide us with additional information about the character – it will provide us with our only information. Nothing happens on that snowy road except the flashback. The character has not yet been made important in the present moment – she is merely a stereotyped image, and a singularly dull one at that: a woman driving in the snow. By the time the flashback is over, the reader will have forgotten about the snow – there’s nothing to remember anyway. We have no anchor in the present moment, so we are soon hopelessly adrift in memory.
A rule of thumb: If you feel a need to have a flashback on the first or second page of your story, either your story should begin with the events of the flashback, or you should get us involved with some compelling present characters and events before flashing back.
I usually prefer the former choice – beginning the story with the first events that matter. However, sometimes, many pages into the story, there’s a real need for the character to remember some key event. If we’re well rooted in the story, if we know enough to care about the character for the flashback to be important to us, then it can work very well. But it still has a serious cost. It stops the present action. The longer the flashback takes, the harder it is for the audience to remember what was happening just before the flashback began. So flashbacks should be rare, they should be brief, and they should take place only after you have anchored the story in the present action.
Memory as a Present Event
Slightly more effective is having one character tell another a story out of the past. If you set it up properly, the telling of the story, besides conveying past information, can also be present action. Take, for example, the hiding-behind-tapestries scene in James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter. Each of King Henry’s three sons has come to King Philip of France, trying to make a deal with him to destroy all the others. Now Henry himself comes, and his sons hide behind tapestries as the two kings confront each other.
Provoked beyond endurance. Philip tells Henry a story about his childhood. But the story he tells does not stop the action – it is the action. Philip tells how he was homosexually seduced by Henry’s son Richard, and how he went along with the act, though he loathed it, in order to be able to tell Henry about it now.
With the pain that this revelation causes Henry – not to mention Richard, behind the curtain – the story is doing double duty.HHen
It gives us some of the past of Richard and Philip, fleshing them out as characters; it also causes terrible emotional pain in the present, which strengths Henry and Richard as victims and Philip as tormentor.
Notice, though, that the story is not just any story. It is about pain the past, Philip’s pain. It isn’t enough just to tell random stories from a character’s past. They have to be stories that are important.
Flashbacks can also follow this rule, and become part of a present event. If, for instance, a character’s memory of a past event causes him to make a key decision, or take an action he would otherwise not have taken, then the memory is part of the present action, not really an interruption at all.
However, convenient memories can strain the reader’s credulity. If it’s a memory the character could have called to mind at any point, having her think of it just in time to make a key decision may seem like an implausible coincidence, as if the author is controlling events too tightly. If the memory is going to prompt a present decision, then the memory in turn must have been prompted by a recent event. Better yet, it should be a memory of something that the character never understood; new information or a new experience has changed the meaning of that event in her mind, so she isn’t just remembering, she’s also revising. Then the memory isn’t passive, it’s an active part of the story.
It’s possible to drop in memories with only a slight pause in the forward movement of the story:
I stood on the edge and saw how far down the bay was and suddenly remembered the cat I threw off the roof when I was a kid, how it twisted and snapped and clawed at the air. Never did find anything to hold onto till it hit the ground, and after that it didn’t snap or claw or twist or breathe or anything. Took me fifteen minutes to crawl down the ladder off the roof after watching the cat fall. I was sure wishing for a ladder now.
She pretended to be interested in his stories, but he knew that glazed look she got, her eyes not quite focused as she murmured occasionally to make him think she was listening. He used to murmur just like that during all those excruciating breakfasts when Nora insisted on telling him her dreams from the night before. It always felt to him like her dreams lasted longer than she slept. But it had never occurred to him that he could bore somebody else that badly.
If these quick references to the past are pertinent to the present events in the story, they won’t feel like they’re much of a break in the action, even if they don’t make a significant change in the events of the story.
A rule of thumb: The shorter the memory, the less important it needs to be in order to justify stopping the story for it. If memories are short enough, they can be completely irrelevant:
I don’t recommend the restaurant. Worst food I ever had since I ate six live crickets on a two-dollar bet.
The six live crickets have nothing to do with the story. And it doesn’t really tell you much specific information about the character. You certainly don’t expect this information to make a difference in the story. But this brief memory still enriches the audience’s concept of the character by implying some strangeness in his past; the audience will assume that there are plenty of other stories he could tell if he had the time. Without saying very much, you give the audience the impression that they know this character very well.
THE IMPLIED PAST
It’s possible to add to your character’s past without stopping the action or even overtly mentioning her past at all, by giving her an implied past. You give readers a sense that the character has already lived a full life without telling them exactly what that past was.
What a character expects will happen in the present tells us instantly what has happened before in his past.
Suppose Pete steps toward a young girl, smiling, and extends his hand to give her a doughnut. To his surprise, she cringes away as if afraid she’ll be struck. The audience knows at once – without the narrator having to say it – that the child has been beaten often enough that she expects a beating. Without slowing down the action at all, you have given a sense of the character’s past and told us something of her pain.
Each of the following passages implies things about a character’s past:
The clerk repeated, “Cash or change?” Nora looked helplessly at Pete. He spread his hands as if to show he wasn’t holding a Gold Card. “You’re the one doing the shopping,” he said. “I can’t afford this stuff.” Still she made no move to pay. Finally he gave up and opened her purse for her. It was stuffed full of cash. He peeled two hundreds off an inch-thick stack and gave them to the clerk. Then he put the change and the receipt into the purse and snapped it shut.
“You ought to use some of that to hire a bodyguard,” he said. “The junkie who mugs you could o.d. and die, and then his family would sue you.”
She smiled and shrugged a little.
As they left, Pete heard the clerk telling somebody, “And it was all hundreds! The whole purse!”
Pete watched for a gap in the speeding cars and stepped out into the road. Immediately drivers began swerving and slamming on their brakes. If everybody had kept going smoothly, he would have made it across the road easily; as it was, he barely made it back to the curb alive. How can people ever cross streets in America, he thought, if drivers go crazy every time they see a pedestrian?
As soon as Pete got in the door Nora began to cry, “I didn’t mean to do it,” she said over and over again. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” It took fifteen minutes before she’s believe him when he said it was no big deal. “But it’s completely smashed,” she said. Hadn’t she ever heard of insurance?
Pete noticed that Nora kept sliding the bills between her thumb and fingers. Finally he realized she was counting them, again and again, as if she had to make sure they were all there.
Nora was finally calm enough that she could talk to Pete again, but when she went into the living room, there he was, straightening the magazines, dusting, arranging the pillows, trying to make her feel guilty for being such a slob. It made her so angry that there was no way she could take part in a reasonable discussion.
She rushed out of the apartment, ignoring him when he called her name. “Nora! Nora!” His wheedling tone reminded her of the way bratty children say mommy. “Naw-mee! Naw-rah!”
As she waited for the elevator, she imagined Pete calling out to his mother in just the same tone he had used with her. Then she remembered her mother-in-law’s immaculate house, and realized that Pete’s housecleaning routine was probably what he had done as a child to placate the old bitch when she was angry with him.
After these bitter, terrible arguments, did you really think that cleaning the house would make everything all right again? I’ll never kill you, Pete, no matter how angry you make me – but I might just kill your mother.
Every one of these vignettes reveals a character’s expectations, implying a story from his or her past. Yet not one of them slows the action very much. They add depth to the characterization without subtracting momentum from the forward movement of the story.
Everyone alive has habits, some of them meaningless, but many of them the result of the patterns of our lives. If a character paces or drums his fingers on the table, you know that he’s tense and this is the way he shows it. But your characters should also have specific habits that tell something about their lives.
“Where are you going?” Pete asked. “I didn’t say to turn there.”
“I’m sorry,” Nora said, flustered. “This is the way I always take Ryan to school. I wasn’t thinking.”
Pete was back in an hour with the groceries and the change. He counted it out backward into her hand. “Seventeen sixty-two, sixty-five, seventy-five, eighteen, nineteen, and twenty.”
Only then did he realize what he had done. He laughed ruefully. “Twenty years since I worked in Dad’s store, and I’m still counting change like a clerk.”
Nora looked carefully to the left and stepped out into the street. A taxi slammed on its brakes and swerved to avoid hitting her – from the right. Oh yes, thought Nora. They drive on the wrong side of the road here. My pedestrian survival training from New York won’t be much help in London.
Pete left a 6:30 wake-up order with the hotel operator, turned off the television, and climbed into bed. He slept on the left side, of course, even though Nora hadn’t been there to sleep on the right side since they separated four years before.
Nora noticed that every time Pete wrote a check, he drew three horizontal lines in every space between the words and numbers. “Do you really think the grocery store people are going to alter your check to say one million and thirty-three dollars and forty-four cents?”
“It’s like fastening your seatbelt or locking your car,” said Pete. “Do it even when it doesn’t matter, and you won’t forget to do it when it does.”
Too many habits, of course, and your characters will seem obsessive-compulsive. But anybody who’s been alive for any length of time has some habits, and it helps us believe in and understand your characters when we see what their habits are.
Anyone who has been alive for any length of time has also made many connections with other people. Unless a character has been torn from his or her normal milieu, those connections are going to show up.
Pete noticed the way people in the store looked at Nora. Quick, furtive glances. He couldn’t see anything wrong with her – no run in her stocking, no underwear showing. He didn’t catch on until he realized that the store detective was shadowing them. Apparently Nora was know here, and not as a big spender.
Nora knew that Pete was not the man of her dreams when the model clerk took his check without asking for ID. She thought it might be classy to be recognized at the Hilton, but not at a motel that rents for ten dollars an hour. Still, a man who pays by check is probably telling the truth when he says he isn’t married.
Everybody Pete and Nora ran into did the same thing. Just as they were about to ask her a question, they’d glance at Pete and then smile and say something noncommittal. Nora and Pete stopped for lunch at a diner called the White Trash Saloon. It took a few minutes before Nora realized that the used-up looking waitress was Suzy Parker from high school. The last ten years hadn’t been good to her.
Suzy recognized Nora too and finally asked the question the others had sidestepped: “How’s Joe Bob?”
Nora smiled icily back. “He’s home taking care of our seven children while Pete and I have a madcap, whirlwind affair.”
The waitress thought about this for a moment. “You don’t have no seven children,” she finally said. “Too damn thin.”
Nora couldn’t help noticing that all the unopened letters on the kitchen table had transparent windows, and a lot of them said FINAL NOTICE. Even through the closed door, she could hear Pete shouting into the telephone. “I’ll make payments on that piece of junk any moth that it runs! And if you send somebody to pick it up, I’ll blast their head off!” A minute later he came back in, grinning. “An old girlfriend,” he said.
Sometimes the relationships that your character has with other people around him will be important to the story, but often they’ll be there merely to give a sense that he has a full life, or to add an occasional comic touch. No matter how you use these mini-relationships in your story, though, the main benefit is that your characters won’t seem to be puppets, alive only when they’re on stage and someone is pulling the strings. They’ll seem to have a real life outside the story as well, a network of relationships reaching far and wide. Though only a small part of that network is explored in your story, the reader senses that the rest of the network is there.
There is nothing so outre, so off-the-wall, so impossible or bizarre or outrageous that you cannot make it believable within a story. It all depends on how hard you want to work at justifying it.
Nora stood on the roof. She was only nine stories up, but it might as well be nine miles. There was no escape. Pete came toward her, the long knife glimmering in the moonlight. Nora trembled, but she knew what she had to do. So she reached out, slapped the knife out of his hand, picked him up over her head and threw him off the roof. All those years of lifting weights and taking judo classes had paid off at last.
If that last sentence is the first time Nora’s weight lifting has ever been mentioned in the story, the audience will be outraged by this scene. Here they’ve been so worried about Pete and his knife, and all along Nora was apparently built like an orang-utan.
Does that mean you can’t have Nora throw Pete off the roof? Of course not. All you have to do is tell us about her weight lifting and judo classes much earlier in the story, so we already know that she’s strong and well trained long before she gives Pete the heave-ho. Furthermore, you have to make Nora the kind of woman who would defy sexual stereotypes and go into heavy weight lifting. Why would she do that? Is it to get a muscular, healthy body? To be stronger than the man who once raped her? A reaction to her fear of her breast cancer recurring? Or did a close friend get her involved in body building just for sociability, and she discovered she liked it? Whatever reason you invent, she will have to become a different person in order to justify her being able to pick Pete up and throw him off the roof.
Of course, if we knew all that about her, we wouldn’t have the same sense of jeopardy as Pete chased her – we’d know that Nora was a woman who could take care of herself. But that doesn’t mean the scene would be without tension. There are several strategies available:
Give Pete a gun so we’ll fear that her strength will be useless against him. Then you’ll have to figure of jeopardy back again.
Change the source of the tension. Instead of fearing that Pete will kill her, she (and the audience) fears that she will have to kill Pete, and she could not bear to do so. She warns him, but he behaves as if he wants to die. Merely hurting him as not stopped him in the past. If she kills him, terrible things will happen. The audience fears that she might not kill him, yet knows that she will also suffer terribly if she does.
Make her feat less outlandish. Instead of having her slap away the knife, pick him up, and throw him off the building, have her sidestep the knife and use Pete’s momentum to push him off. That doesn’t require her to be anywhere near as strong; you could have her just beginning her judo lessons and can skip the whole weight lifting idea altogether. This still requires some preparation, and it requires more details during the fight on the roof, but it will work.
Make the conclusion a believable accident. Pete actually stabs her. She nearly faints from the pain, stumbles, lurches into Pete. He loses his balance; she falls, but grabs at his legs, pleading with him not to stab her again. With her holding his feet, he can’t recover his balance. He falls off the building. If you should this process in great detail, it will be believable; best of all, it requires no preparation at all, since it’s well within a normal person’s ability.
If you decide to spend a lot of time making Nora believable as a weight lifter, you have to be careful not to get carried away. If the weight lifting only affects the story by allowing Nora to throw Pete off the roof, then you should introduce the weight lifting early, but not keep harping on it, not show her doing nothing but weight lifting. If it becomes too dominant in the story, the reader will expect it to amount to much more than just a way for her to save her life. “Nora goes through all that weight lifting,” the reader will say, “just so she can toss this guy? Will she stop weight lifting now?” The amount of justification must be in proportion to the event being justified, or it leads the reader to expect things that you aren’t going to deliver.
As a general rule, the more bizarre and unbelievable the character’s behaviour and the more important it is to the story, the earlier in the story you have to begin justifying it and the more time you’ll need to spend to make it believable.