Readers come into a story eager to greet a new world, willing to temporarily suspend their belief in the way the world works to explore your vision of the alternatives. They place their trust in you to make it feel plausible. Could that character really turn into a fly? Would this one really give up stardom for her love?
Stories that fail to ring true break that trust. These brittle, hollow stories break reader immersion again and again before finally driving readers away.
It’s easy to blame the tinny, artificial quality of an unconvincing story on external factors: plot holes, improbable scenarios. We just don’t believe that the plot could happen that way.
But dip into any well-written speculative novel or a tightly crafted psychological thriller, and you’ll see that readers are keen to be led into all sorts of farfetched nooks and crannies. They’ll overlook a certain amount of hand-waving and even step willingly over minor plot holes as long as the characters are all in.
If characters forge a fathomable path into the story through their thoughts and reactions and emotions, readers will dive in alongside them.
Credibility & Inner Life
Character reactions are signposts that show something has happened in the story worth noticing. When the characters fail to react, readers assume that there’s nothing worth noticing going on.
Inappropriate character reactions leave readers hanging. When a character melts into tears because the donut shop is out of blueberry donuts (I know—it hits me right in the feels, too), readers will wonder if the character is unhinged. Could blueberry donuts really play such a key role in the plot? Or is the author simply unable to convey how the characters are behaving in a believable way?
As long as you offer a frame of reference through your characters’ inner lives, readers will willingly travel fantastic places within your book, plumbing a serial killer’s psyche or accepting magic and alien cultures. Your characters’ inner life is like the legend of the story map, showing how the regions of the story world relate to each other. Stiff, disconnected, or missing character reactions remove that key and scramble readers’ ability to make sense of the story.
The Roots of Verisimilitude
It’s all about action and reaction, stimulus and response. Multiple stimulus-response units within even a simple plot point or exchange of dialogue—the characters’ reactions—are what make the scene feel real. If you gloss over character reactions, the writing feels wooden and inauthentic.
This isn’t a matter of hitting the high points. Getting readers to swallow the twists in your story is a process of making the individual “transactions of fiction” seem believable in their eyes, as Jack Bickham explains in Scene & Structure. You can read more about character reactions in our exploration of action-reaction misfires, where we made a step-by-step survey of the experience of tumbling into a hill of roiling ants.
When characters fail to react or when they fail to react appropriately, readers lose trust that things make sense within the confines of the story world. Heap enough action-reaction clunkers on readers, and the entire plot loses credibility. Why are the characters doing this? Why should readers care?
People tend to dwell on their immediate needs and concerns. This is true whether they’re sweating through a potentially career-making presentation or racing to make it home first at the end of a lousy day to snag the last ice cream bar from the freezer. Momentous or not, people always have some top-of-mind agenda.
“We know that the viewpoint character is strongly motivated toward a specific, short-term goal essential to his long-term quest when he enters the scene,” Bickham explains. “Therefore, he will tend to be preoccupied with this goal throughout the scene. In fiction, as in real life, people tend to interpret everything in the frame of reference of their preoccupation of the moment.”
You can keep that agenda in view using the viewpoint character’s inner life. Their continual orientation and re-orientation to their short-term goal (the scene goal) helps readers grasp why they’re doing what they’re doing. As long as readers grasp the why, even implausible actions in an implausible setting can take on an aura of verisimilitude.
“Fiction must make more sense than real life if general readers are to find it credible,” Bickham writes. But how could it be possible to make fiction make more sense than real life? By showing how and why it makes sense to the characters who are living it.
To put it another way, plausibility arises from consistent authenticity. When the characters’ reactions and choices feel authentic, the plot itself gains credibility. Based on the reactions of these characters in this situation, what’s happening makes sense.
And even when readers disagree with the characters’ choices, they’ll accept them as long as the story clearly shows how the characters arrived at those conclusions.
Lisa Poisso specializes in helping new and emerging querying and self-publishing writers. A classically trained dancer, her approach to writing is grounded in structure, form, and technique as doorways to freedom of movement on the page. Lisa and her industrious team of #45mphcouchpotato greyhounds can be found at LisaPoisso.com. Visit her Linktree for help with your early steps as a writer, join the Clarity for Writers community at Substack, and download a free Manuscript Prep guide. Connect with Lisa on Instagram, Facebook, and X/Twitter.