We Read Fiction to Make Sense of Life’s Disorder

Life is often disordered, but fiction cannot be. We read fiction to make sense of life’s disorder, and we demand that things make sense. No matter how well ordered the rest of the plot, when a stranger comes and simply hands the hero the one element he needs to complete his mission, we feel cheated. The hero should have to work for his goals.

This same order must be inherent in every bit of the book, characters as well as plot. Foolish and spontaneous actions, arbitrary decisions and behavior make the story unbelievable. A character can’t simply wake up one morning with a desire to change jobs, or go on a quest, or hunt for a murderer. While such whims are a part of our lives, they are not part of fictional characters’ lives. All their decisions must be motivated.

A character can wake up one morning with a desire to change jobs, for example, but the author needs to add a few words to explain why: a quarrel with a boss, a promised promotion that doesn’t materialize, a backbiting co-worker. If a character must quit on a whim, the author has to establish motive from within the character. Perhaps the character always acts on whim, in which case the author needs to show that. Or perhaps it’s June; the scents seeping in the open window remind the character of the long summer days of childhood, and he has an overwhelming need to experience that freedom again.

Readers will believe almost anything an author wants them to believe, as long as it is motivated.

At the beginning of my book, More Deaths Than One, (which can be seen by clicking on the My First Chapters link off to the right) I have Kerry, a graveyard-shift waitress, showing an interest in Bob, the quiet hero, who stopped by the coffee shop every night for a hot chocolate. I always thought it was enough that she was bored and was playing games with him, trying to get him to talk, but a reader told me she found Kerry’s motivation for involving herself with Bob a bit thin.

Because Bob is debilitated by headaches and nightmares, I need Kerry to push him into action when he discovers that the mother he buried twenty years ago is dead again and that he has a doppelganger living what could have been his life. If her motivation for involving herself with Bob isn’t believable, then the whole book falls apart.

I thought I was finished with Bob and Kerry. More Deaths Than One was the first book I wrote, also the third and the fifth, and now it looks like it might be the seventh.

In life, as in fiction, we have to work for our goals, but I wouldn’t mind if a stranger came and simply handed me a publishing contract.

6 Responses to “We Read Fiction to Make Sense of Life’s Disorder”

  1. Suzanne Francis Says:

    I thought, as you did, that Kerry was bored, and maybe a bit disgruntled, and I believed that was enough motivation.

    I think you are in danger of allowing your work to be written by ‘committee.’ Nothing is going to please everyone and you have to consider the source of the criticism. Why rewrite a whole book because of one person’s opinion?

    Bottom line, as far as my own writing is concerned, I listen respectfully to comments, and sometimes change things–if I think the change is necessary. (Unless it is my editor, in which case I just change it! 🙂

  2. Bertram Says:

    To be honest, my mentioning another rewrite of the book was literary license. Although I do think about the comments I receive, unless I sell the book to a publisher, in which case I will do anything the editor asks, I have no intention of doing another rewrite.

    I like your phrase written by committee. Most books published today are so bland (except in their depiction of horrendous killings or mutilations) they really do seem as if they were written by a committee.

  3. lynn doiron Says:

    I liked Kerry for her brashness, if I can call it that, of seeing a situation or moment and putting herself smack into the center of it. The action itself tells me plenty and so completely juxtaposes her character with his. For me, more (or a fattening up) in this area would constitute less. I haven’t read all of the chapters, but I’m assuming a gradual deepening of both main characters takes place — from what I have read, you’re too good to have done otherwise.

    “Readers will believe almost anything an author wants them to believe, as long as it is motivated.” But does the motivation have to come/occur before the circumstance we want those readers to believe?

  4. Bertram Says:

    Good question, Lynn. I was under the impression the motivation had to come first so the reader doesn’t get disgusted and toss the book aside, but as long as the writing keeps the reader’s attention, I imagine it would do just as well afterward.

    I’m glad both you and Suzanne caught Kerry’s brashness. I liked that about the character. Interestingly enough, the first three drafts did not have Kerry in at all! Can you imagine how boring it was without her? Just Bob and his memories. What can I say — I was just starting out.

  5. Kenna Coltman Says:

    I like Kerry in her own right, almost more than I like Bob, though he grew on me. I really liked the story, and I thought the second chapter really hit stride. Don’t give it up, Pat. I agree with Suzanne, you can’t allow your book to be written (or re-written) by committee.

    I’m struggling with this issue myself. You know the kind of comments I received. The mechanics I have been able to correct fairly easily (except for shifting POV – though I have narrowed it some). But the whole issue of the prologue (keep it or not – seemed pretty evenly split); too many characters; those are things that it’s going to take me a lot more time to think about. I’ll work on it as my third novel . . . for now I’m taking a step back and working on a short story about a budding ‘hit-mom’ (speakin of mafia). We’ll see how that goes!

  6. Bertram Says:

    Kenna: I do think it’s a good idea to set your manuscript aside and begin another one. It is truly by writing that we learn to write. You can take whatever you learn from writing your second novel and apply it to the first.

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