One of the biggest pet peeves of mine when reading a book or even watching TV or a movie is when something unbelievable happens. There’s nothing worse than instinctively yelling “Oh, come on!”. Sometimes this happens because of some wacky plot point or Deus Ex Machina resolution. I’ve found that a lot of the time it takes place when a character does something out of character. And that brings us to the million dollar question: what is ‘in character’?
Motivations for these made up people are key in making what they do believable. If their past experience and desires align like the stars then the most fantastic of situations feel normal. We don’t question them. We believe Doc Brown built the time machine in Back to the Future because it fits his character. He had the money and the eccentric personality to do it. He also briefly mentions it took him decades to do it. The stars align. It can also flop gloriously as in Superman Returns. Not only is it hard to believe Kevin Spacey is an evil Lex Luthor but his “diabolical” plan doesn’t make much sense. This big lack of believability is a main reason I thought the movie was horrid.
A quite popular book right now is Andy Weir’s The Martian and the plot lends itself to amazing character motivations (possible spoilers coming). With Watney stuck on Mars he uses extreme science to make use of every inch of the raw resources he’s left with. Yes there’s math and NASA science involved but never once do we question his ability to do what he does. His motivation is simple: stay alive long enough to be rescued. When things that are quite fantastic happen, it’s a ‘wow’ moment instead of a ‘oh, come on’ moment.
The novel Before I Go To Sleep is another prime example. In this book, which is similar to the movie Memento, Christine’s motivations are based on a mistrust that’s mixed with a primal desire to learn the truth. She can’t remember her past and it scares her because what if her past self’s notes are lying to her? We all want to know the facts of our lives. When your memory is no longer reliable, this becomes even more of a believable situation to go to extremes in order to learn your past. Mistrust is something we’ve all encountered yet we all want to know what really is happening. Again, the motivations align perfectly.
This motivation tennant of storytelling was something I spent a lot of time on when writing my novel Spirit Hackers. While death and the concept of an afterlife is something we all have sadly experienced, it’s important to make sure the way people act in this realm to be something that aligns as well. What would motivate people to do things that aren’t on the up and up? What pushes people into a ‘whatever it takes’ mindset? Redemption, closure, and a desire to learn about the unknown were the motivations I grabbed onto in order to drive my characters. I never want someone to question why anyone in my book does what they do.
So the next time you’re ready to shout at that paperback or TV set, take a moment to think about why you’re not believing what is happening. Likely, there wasn’t enough of a setup that made you believe what just took place. If you’re a writer, take notes! Then avoid those mistakes in your own work.