Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The V Factor: Break It at Your Peril

Song playing: When You Were Young by the Killers

Spring has sprung, so it’s been a steady 80 degrees outside all week. The pollen is so thick in the air it lands on your car and turns it green. You think I am exaggerating, but just wait. I will have pictures of this phenomenon.

As such, my sinuses are killing me, but I can’t take any allergy medicine, because seriously. Me and medicine. Doesn’t work out well if I want to function the rest of the day. So I shall suffer in not-quite silence.

But my sneezy, itchy nose isn’t what I wanted to talk about today. Something much more important.

There is a plague sweeping our fair writing community, one that must be stopped at all costs. Call up the hobbits, Gandalf, Aragorn, and Legolas will have to leave Roxy for a short period of time (sorry Roxy, it’s his civic duty). It’s time to combat something worse than just a measly overlord trying to enslave the world in darkness.

I am talking about verisimilitude. Which is a really fancy way of saying the character acts believably. Jim Butcher shortened “verisimilitude” to “V-factor” and I think that’s a great idea.

Note how I did not say the character acts in character, although that is part of it.

No, I said “believably”. Here is a short quote from Mr. Butcher’s article on Characters:

“V-factor is the second most important element in creating interesting characters. The most exotic character in the world becomes nothing more than an annoying cartoon figure if he doesn't behave in a consistent and believable manner. (*kaffkaff*JAR-JAR*kaffkaff*)”

Notice how Butcher says “consistent” AND “believable”. Consistency is what we are all the most familiar with. It’s pretty basic Writing 101 stuff. We know that once you establish your character with certain traits, he has to keep acting as you have established, unless you GRADUALLY show his development and change.

If I establish my character Scud as a bad boy who doesn’t like to play by the rules, and bucks up to authority, when Scud gets pulled over by a cop, the reader is already tensing up in his seat. The reader knows there’s trouble brewing, because Scud has a bunch of illegal guns in his trunk, and needs to keep the nice police officer happy, but Scud ALSO can’t seem to keep his mouth shut either.

If Scud doesn’t mouth off to the police officer it might be forgivable. Maybe the threat of illegal guns and getting his kneecaps broken by the goons he’s transporting the guns to is incentive enough to keep quiet. You do have some latitude with your character traits, because you don’t want to make a caricature either. BUT if Scud goes out of his way to be nice to the police officer, takes a bullet for him or something of that nature, the reader will be quicker to call foul.

All of that is consistency, your characters acting within character. We already know about this.

Something that doesn’t get touched upon however, is believability. It’s closely related to consistency, but not the same thing. The good news is that most writers subconsciously have this sucker down pat, so they don’t run afoul of the Believability Police. But lately I have read several books, by well known, published authors—even bestselling authors—whose characters sometimes don’t act in a manner that is believable.

Let me tell you, there is nothing that throws you out of story quicker than a character who doesn’t act in a believable manner.

Here is an exaggerated example: A bomb is about to explode. Your character, a normal smuck who’s worked out of cubical his entire life, diffuses it. Not even a sentence in the beginning of the book about his “Bombing Diffusing and You” class will suspend your disbelief on this one. You just don’t believe that a normal guy would know how to diffuse a bomb IN REAL LIFE.

Note how I said “in real life”. This is where believability comes into play. Yes, I agree that characters should have exaggerated personality traits to entertain or inform, you pick your poison. And yes, fiction is not real life, but a close facsimile to it.

BUT your character still has to act in a manner that we can believe. And our belief comes from our real life experiences. There are all sorts of ways a writer can slip and break the believability of a character. Actually, my earlier post “Characters Who Need to Be Shot” covers one such example, that of a bossy heroine mouthing off to a big bad guy and never suffering the consequences of her actions. I do not believe that a person can act like a know-it-all jerk without there being consequences to those actions. And yet, it happens a lot. Sure, they are masochistic people who are attracted to this sort of person, but not every person in the whole world will bow down or put up with this character’s crap.

I blame movies. Movies are really bad about having a character act in a really extreme way—altruistic, jerkish, naïve—without showing the consequences these actions have on their life.

A character’s personality is just one way you can run afoul of the Believability police. Their job is another area rife with ways to screw up. Whether the character comes up with a convenient skill they didn’t have before, or wouldn’t really know (like bomb diffusing), or acts in a manner someone of that profession, social class, race, color, religion, planetary origin would not, your character is not acting in a manner we can believe. And that breaks our suspension of disbelief.

The flip side to this is with proper motivation, explanation, setting, etc you can make ANYTHING believable. And not only will it be believable, but the story will be more awesome for it. We are writers after all. Given enough time, set up, details, and all of the other stuff you put into your book to make it seem “real”, we can make you believe in people that never existed, worlds that never were, and events that never happened.

My former example? Office smuck who diffuses a bomb? There are several ways to make that work. He could have amnesia and been a bomb tec in his former life. He could be dating a bomb expert. He could secretly be training himself because he wants to be on the bomb squad. He could have no idea what he was doing, and diffuse it on dumb luck. With the right details, anything is believable, but you have to take the time to make it work. You have to set it up so I believe he can diffuse a bomb.

It all boils down to you, as the author, really thinking things through. I know having a smart mouthed character is really fun, and I too can get swept up in the events of the plot. It all makes sense to me, because I can feel the character and I know all the tiny reasons behind what they do. But you have to make sure you look at all sides of your story, character and plot alike.

You also have to make sure your character isn’t just a puppet to the plot, or your idea. You have to make sure the character acts like a real person.

It’s very inconvenient when a character acts like a real person, because then you tend to write your characters into situations you have NO IDEA how to get them out of. But think about it—if you can’t see how he’s going to get himself out of trouble the first time around, the reader won’t either. And the story will be much more organic and thrilling for it.

But how do you do this? I have droned on and on about the evils of breaking the V-factor, but how to do make people believe in the unbelievable?

Jim Butcher has some suggestions in his article on Characters at his Live Journal.

And I have some as well.

First, make a list of what your character has to be able to do by the end of the book to make your plot work. He doesn’t have to be able to do it in the beginning, but by the end of the book he has to know how to diffuse a bomb. Or if your character is shy, and you’re writing a poignant coming of age, he has to get over his fear of speaking onstage.

Work out some steps for him to take to get to that goal. Then work out how you’re going to write that into the story, hopefully in a subtle manner. Not “Gee Bob, I sure am glad I took that How to Diffuse a Bomb at-home study course. And you poo-pooed it!”

Also, examine your character from every angle. Spend time with people in his profession, if you can. Cops don’t just go around breaking the law, you might note. Lawyers tend to work really long hours. Try to collect as many details about your character and what that means for a person in real life with those flaws, those merits, that profession. Notice how the office jerk does has dates on Friday night, but no family to go home to on the weekends. Notice how the shy mousey girl gets walked on by other people.

Remember. The devil is in the details. Don’t let something so important ruin an otherwise perfectly good book. And relax. As I said, most people inherently grasp this concept. Once you know what you’re looking for, it will be easier to spot lapses in V-factor where you made a quick jump to further the plot.

What do you guys think? Am I raving mad? Any examples of blatant disregard for how people act in real life?


  1. Great Post! Recently I read a horror story that violated the law of the V-factor. The main character was a school teacher; quiet, reserved, non-violent, and an upper-class, urban native to boot. A lover of hers suddenly transforms into a deer after they make whoopy (already kind of weird), and the first thing she does is runs downstairs, grabs a shotgun, and shoots the deer... huh? Not only was that out of character, it wasn't believable that she would shoot this deer knowing it was her lover. It frustrated me so much I stopped reading after the next couple chapters.

    Another case was actually in a H.G. Wells book. Two characters travel to another planet, and at the first sign of alien life one of them turns madly belligerent and attacks a whole group of the aliens--without being provoked, and before the aliens had even seen them. The whole ride there they were talking about studying the planet, learning about alien cultures, then... Blarg! I'm hostile for no reason!

    uhg... it's so annoying.

  2. Great post, and very true! I especially like your first suggestion of making a list of how the character needs to have changed by the end of the book. I should do that, because mine are definitely nuanced changes, but extremely important.

  3. I am glad you guys found this useful. It annoys me when authors break this, but hard to put to words unless you really think about it.

    @Michael: Those are both excellent examples. Especially the shooting the were-deer thing. Urgh. That just seems like the author wanted the character to shoot her lover, and forced the situation.

    @ Summer: Thanks for commenting! I really find making a little bulleted map for the character change helpful, especially when those changes are nuanced.

  4. I do my best to keep my charries believable, even though I write fantasy which is wide open, in some respects, to a creatures abilities. I'm not going to make a monster fart flowers, for example. Not only is the idea banal, a flower farting monster isn't very scary is it?