Monday, March 26, 2012

Credibility is everything, even in fiction

Credibility can make or break a story. When a reader comes across an obvious inaccuracy, an inconsistent detail, or an out-of-character action by a main character, they are jolted out of the story.

You might be thinking: but how do I maintain credibility when I'm writing about incredible stuff? Through realistic facts and details, and maintaining consistency.

1. Facts must be true (or explained, if they aren't):

For example, I'm writing an alternate history story of the Indian Wars. Before I did my research, I had the cavalry using muzzle loaders. During the revision-fact-checking process, I discovered that the cavalry should be using Henry repeating rifles. Would most people have noticed the difference? Maybe, maybe not. But it was a factual error that could have killed the story for anyone who has a good knowledge of history. Unless, of course, I've explained why they aren't using the kind of rifles they were supposed to (Aliens came back in time and stole all the people who were inventing more modern rifles--a la The Terminator--and projectile technology was thus set back a hundred years).

2. Details have to be consistent:

If you've created a fantasy world, it can certainly have blue cows. It's your world, it can have what ever you want! But then the cows should always remain blue on that world, and if they change color later, you'll need to explain it (they change colors with the seasons?). And if you call a sword a Tspat on page 12, you can't call it a Zbek on page 425 (without an explanation, anyway);

3. Character behavior has to be realistic and consistent:

Throughout a novel, a character should change, but their behavior should be consistent with wherever they are in their transformation. If your character is going to grow from coward to courageous, they shouldn't be rushing into a burning building while they are still in the coward stage. Also, their behavior should be consistent for their demographic-type.

Number three is best explained using an example from The Walking Dead.

During the finale of The Walking Dead, I found myself yelling at the TV again. No, not "Look out Rick, there's a zombie behind you." I've been yelling, "Damn it, Lori, put a leash on that kid!"

Throughout most of this season, a lot of problems for the characters have involved or been exacerbated by a wandering child name Carl. It adds more conflict for the storyline, but it's also caused a credibility problem:

1. It's the frigging zombie apocalypse. What kind of mother would even let a kid out of their sight? Dad's got an excuse: he's busy saving the world. But mom? I'm sure there's a lot of laundry to do, but make the kid help and keep an eye on his wandering butt.
2. Carl has already been shot once. Sure, he hadn't been wandering alone that time, but still! They are aware that danger exists even when zombies aren't around. Again, what kind of a mom . . . ?
3. They have already lost a child from their group, and she had a good excuse for wandering off (zombies in hot pursuit).

So the character of Lori is a great example of a character acting inconsistently with her type. She's a mom. Mom's are supposed to protect their children. Instead, she lets him wander through the zombie apocalypse. And every time Carl wanders, I get jolted out of the story.

But not being credible can do more than jolt the reader out of the story: it can cause people to make fun of you. Check out these two links:

Rick and Lori have a little chat

10 Reasons Why The Walking Dead Should Just Kill Carl, by Marina Cockenberg

And yes, the #KillCarlAlready hash tag is real, and it gets a lot of use, but that's not the kind of publicity you're looking for.

So remember: even though we are creating incredible worlds, we have to make sure the stories remain credible.

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