I Believe!

by Pari Noskin Taichert

Lies! We drown in lies.

Child predators sneak on the internet, lurking on game sites, luring children. Mrs. Samson of Nigeria sends emails pleading with the Most Honorable you to help get her money out of the country. Omigod! You’ve just won millions in an international lottery you didn’t even enter. All you have to do is send a money order to claim your prize. Someone from your credit card company is calling, asking to verify your security code number . . .

Is the Evil Editor real? Who is Ms. Snark? Does Sarah Weinman exist? Is David Montgomery really who he claims to be? Is that truly Barry Eisler’s hair?

How do we know truth? How do we recognize the real from the fabricated in life?

I think it’s a gut reaction — a belief — that we then own or verify.

But what happens when the whole goal is fabrication? That’s what fiction is, after all . . . . lies.

When, and how, do fictional characters ring true?

We all recognize when a character works — rock solid or skittery as a squirrel on Red Bull — we believe in her. During the reading, she exists — full formed and breathing. We hear her voice, smell her deodorant, understand her motivations, taste the garlic bread she eats.

Alas, almost as often, characters ring false. Why?

We might have physical descriptions, emotional tags, explanations about abusive relationships, but still these fictional creations resemble cardboard. For some reason, we don’t have enough of the right information to engage in their lives.

What’s missing?

Why do we read some books and believe in those characters (and their worlds, no matter how seemingly outrageous) so much that they remain with us for weeks or years? Why do we read other stories that mean nothing to us, ones where the characters remain flat on the page and evoke no stronger reaction than to go clean the toilet?

I don’t have answers today, just questions.

Can you add to the conversation?

What makes a character ring true for you?

21 thoughts on “I Believe!

  1. Mike MacLean

    When all is said and done, I think it boils down to motivation. If I don’t believe a character would act a certain way in a given situation, I don’t believe the character. Will the mad bomber nuke the Lower East Side? It doesn’t matter. Not unless I believe he has real reason for wanting to do so.

    And, if can step off topic for a moment. Our own Edgar nominee wanted me to mention the MWA is presenting a conversation with Poisoned Pen Publisher Barbara Peters. The discussion will center on current trends in the book world and what writers ought to know about them. So if you’re in the area on Monday April 16, drop in on the Scottsdale Poisoned Pen around 5:00 pm. http://www.poisonedpen.com/

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  2. Lisa

    I think it’s all those things — motivation, emotional tags, an understanding of the way they’re looking at the world, the tiny detail about the mole on their cheek or the hair that sticks up in back — but incorporated into a story that also has all of those things going on — setting and plot so physically or emotionally real that we can’t stop ourselves from believing in them. We can accept Larry McMurtry’s casts of thousands — and believe in each one of them — because we can see and feel the story so well.

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  3. pari

    I think there has to be something we relate to at a fundamental level. If we don’t, we won’t believe.

    As Thursday Next explains in SOMETHING ROTTEN (Jasper Fforde), ” . . . each interpretation of an event, setting or character is unique to each of those who read it because they clothe the author’s description with the memory of their own experiences. Every character they read is actually a complex amalgam of people that they’ve met, read or seen before — far more real that it can ever be just from the text on the page. Because every reader’s experiences are different, each book is unique for each reader.” p.21

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  4. Tammy Cravit

    I agree with the aspects of character that Lisa listed, but to me, those are just pieces of the puzzle. The real challenge is to make characters three-dimensional. Nobody believes a plywood cutout with the face of your character plastered on it. Nobody believes the cartoon face holding a gun.

    Believable, credible characters have depth to them, and that depth shows itself in motivation, personality, and all the other things Lisa listed in her post. Even the arch-villain of your story has to have a past, parents who loved him (or didn’t), people he cares about (or doesn’t), things he values and believes in. Even your hero(ine) has to have made mistakes in the past. She has to have things she’s struggling with, a past that drives her to where she is.

    That, to me, is what makes a character believable.

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  5. pari

    Really good input from Mike, Lisa and Tammy. Thank you.

    Can anyone give me examples of vivid, believable characters? These don’t just have to be in the mystery genre. (I know, I know, LONESOME DOVE is a good one; I HAVE to read that before seeing Guyot again. Until then, I think I’ll just have to avoid him.)

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  6. Louise Ure

    I love the Jasper Fforde quote. I think he nailed it.

    Great character writing, for me, is like a beautiful woman. If she’s completely flawless, she’s a cardboard cut out. If there’s some minor distinction — a hair out of place, a space between the teeth — it makes her beauty more visible, and more real.

    I still treasure the reader comment I got about a character in FORCING AMARYLLIS. “I know what her sweat smells like.”

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  7. Elaine Flinn

    Pardon the reference to a really dumb movie – but ‘The Good, the Bad & the Ugly’ immediately came to mine. We’ve all got a bit of good, bad & ugly in us – and so should our characters. It’s the old ying and yang thing. Too many times (and I’m just as guilty)we hesitate to conjure a character with faults a shade darker than gray.

    In case you think I may be over stating…blame it on not enough coffee this morning.

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  8. pari

    Good morning, Elaine and Louise,I like both of your takes on this reality thing.

    It’s easy to think of bad examples, isn’t it? Two come to mind . . . well, more than two.

    1. Any character in the Da Vinci Code.2. I really enjoy Robert Parker’s Spenser and Hawk — and really, really dislike his female protag (I think her name is “Sunny”?) becuase she’s such a boy’s wet dream. I only read the first half of one of those books before throwing it across the room.

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  9. JT Ellison

    Simon, lol…

    It’s a good question, Pari. I don’t mean to cop out and use the pornogrpahy excuse, but I just know when a character is going to appeal, and when they aren’t. I don’t know if I can explain…

    Well, look at Ms. Sokoloff’s THE HARROWING. This is the perfect example of characters who have life, depth, motivation, personality, honor, weak spines, amorality, morality, fear, courage, and a realistic language structure in keeping with their station in life, all tied up in a few days of story. One of the stongest examples that pops to mid, actually.

    So that’s it, I guess. If the characters are real and realistic, and don’t act against their nature, they work for me. When the writer takes a character and makes them do something that you know immediately they wouldn’t, that rings false and makes them two dimensional.

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  10. Regina Harvey

    Even when characters aren’t realistic (speaking of the comic characters of Jasper Fforde and Elizabeth Peters, Terry Pratchett, etc.), they have to have strengths and foibles, follow their own code (which in itself has to have basis in the character’s past experiences) and actually grow. Unless, of course, they are the kind of static but perfect characters like Poirot or Miss Marple. And they have to have a distinctive voice. That’s almost more important than anything, and voice includes reaction, motivation, as well as dialogue.

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  11. wendy roberts

    Charlaine Harris’s Aurora Teagarden is definitely one for me. Another would be any Jenny Crusie characters. They’re always driven by realistic conflict and simultaneously bigger than life and down to earth.

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  12. pari

    Hey, Simon, good to see you here. Of course, you’re Memorex.

    J.T.,Interesting take: consistency within the character. I’ll have to think about it.

    I also wonder if what one person thinks is flat — another might find full of life. Or, do good characters ALWAYS ring true?

    Regina,I know that I WANT characters to have that distinctive voice . . . it makes them interesting. But I’m not sure about whether that makes characters more, or less, believable.

    I honestly don’t know. Am thinking about it.

    Wendy,Thanks for the examples. I agree on Charlaine’s Aurora. I’ve only read one Crusie and was amazed at how quickly I was sucked in by the characters and stories; I’d expected the skepticism of the non-romance reader. Crusie was one of the writers who made me rethink my snobbery about this popular genre.

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  13. billie

    This is one of my favorite passages from a novel and it, to me, illustrates how eloquently a few sentences can evoke character. This passage tells me enormous amounts about both the narrator and Claire. I feel I know them intimately.

    Even in old age, she recurs. I still dream about Claire at least twice a year. How amazing for a thing as vaporous as desire to survive against all the depredations of time, becoming, at its worst, a sad reminder that life mostly fails us. In some dreams she is just a fragrance. Sometimes lavender and sometimes clove and cinnamon, but also another scent dear to my heart. During those two summers, Claire had the habit of absentmindedly wiping her pen nib on her skirts, most of which were dark blue, so the only trace of her habit was the faint odor of ink around her.

    from Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons

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  14. Alex Sokoloff

    Well, thanks, JT! You today, Stacey yesterday… maybe I won’t quit writing after all.

    That set of characters did work for a lot of people – I think they came alive partly because I thought of them as an ensemble cast and let all of them take the lead at different points, when they wanted to. But I’ve also gotten a few reviews in which the story was obviously working for the reviewer in terms of suspense, but the reviewer found the characters cliched. So I think that quote from SOMETHING ROTTEN is right, Pari – characters don’t always work across the board for readers – it does depend on what individual readers bring with them.

    Some characters work for ALMOST everyone, though – like, well, Hannibal Lecter, before the fall!

    What that is? I wish I knew. Archetypes, partly.

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  15. pari

    Alex,I hadn’t even gotten as far as archetypes, but, now that I think of it, these could be the ultimate cliches. No?

    Damn, writing can be so elusive sometimes. Like J.T. remarked, we know when it works — we recognize it, but can’t always create it ourselves.

    Billie,Beautiful passage. I want to know Claire from those few sentences. I want to know why she’s important, why she affected that man so.

    Simon,I’d never dream of recording over you. Never.

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  16. billie

    Pari, what you wrote made me realize – in Thirteen Moons we DO know Claire very well through her own words and actions.

    And we know how the narrator feels about her through his.

    What we don’t know, not truly, is why she had such a powerful effect on him.

    It’s that mystery – what’s not written into the book – that I think has as much to do with evocative character as every thing we do tell.

    I think to capture that about our characters – the mystery – is to really make them live.

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  17. Stacey Cochran

    I love hard-working characters who are in over their heads yet don’t whine, and instead have a glowing (if somewhat delusional) optimism for life, and love their family (which is usually falling apart, too).

    Selfless, caring, somewhat funny, crazy and compassionate. And they just need a break.

    There could never be enough books with characters like that.

    Staceyhttp://www.staceycochran.com

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  18. pari

    Billie,I like that idea of what’s NOT in the book, of that being tremendously important. Thank you.

    Stacey,The first character I thought of the minute I read your post was Anne Shirley — Anne of Green Gables. I read that book for the first time this year — with one of my children — and fell in love with this glorious, quick-tempered, imaginative, wonderful child. She’s so absolutely realized she had stayed with me for months now.

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