A while back, my friend Jane Lindskold put up a post here that discussed the difference between coincidence and contrivance and their roles in real life and in fiction. I thought when I first read it that it was a really good discussion of the two, although her observations didn’t really come as a surprise to me, since Jane and I have known each other for—what? Better than fifteen years?—and we’ve had quite a few discussions about the writer’s craft over that time. I got to thinking about some of the things she’d said, though, and it reminded me of another conversation I had with Jim Baen about the difference between two different but related terms: realistic and credible.
When you get down to it, enjoyable stories are about what makes the characters tick. Very few readers of my acquaintance are interested in stories about vast, impersonal forces. They’re interested in characters, usually (though not always) what might be defined as “people,” and how those characters respond to the problems, the opportunities, and the decisions with which they are presented. Vast impersonal forces may well form the matrix for those character-driven elements, of course. While no one is especially interested in trying to analyze the “motivations” of an avalanche, they may be very interested in the story of how a skier caught in the face of an avalanche responds to it.
Now, sometimes a character’s motivations and the stimulus that provokes a given response from him are extraordinarily easy to grasp. For example, using our skier caught in the path of the avalanche, his decision to swerve to the side, putting the flank of a mountain between him and the avalanche, is what one might call readily understandable. Other times, though, the bases for decisions are far more subjective, far more internalized, if you will, by the character.
I remember a Keith Laumer short story, “Test to Destruction,” which I think is one of the most chilling little character-driven pieces of short fiction I’ve ever encountered. The protagonist of the story is a father, a husband, an idealist, and a revolutionary committed to the overthrow of a vicious totalitarian state. (I put those qualities in that order intentionally, by the way.) He’s captured, and in the course of his interrogation (which isn’t quite as straightforward as the regime’s torturers think it is), he is presented with a series of decisions. They focus around danger to his beloved wife and daughter, presented to him in what amount to incredibly realistic hallucinations. He so deep inside them that they’ve become a virtual reality for him, one that is completely, 100 percent real. And, again and again, he risks his life to save theirs. The scenarios get progressively more horrifying, with less and less chance that he can succeed in saving them coupled with a virtual certainty that he himself will die in the attempt, yet he never hesitates. And, in the final scenario, he sees his daughter trapped in the middle of a river on a fallen tree which is going to plunge over a waterfall hundreds of feet high when he cannot possibly save her . . . at which point he dives in, swims to her, and holds her in his arms so that she won’t die alone.
I’m not going to tell you how the story ends, except to say that it’s not your typical “capable man triumphant” Laumer, and it probably will give you the odd bad dream. But I submit to you that what it’s really all about is following this character’s motivations and the decisions that he makes again and again in the face of what amount to those “vast impersonal forces.” It’s about what makes him tick.
In the case of this particular story, it’s easy for the reader to follow the character’s motivations because we basically spend the entire story inside his head. His motivations and his inner character are simultaneously built and displayed to us because of our perspective on his actions. In my opinion, though, it grows harder for a writer to do it that way as the number of characters in play in a given story increases. In those instances, a writer is forced to display a given character’s motivations from an external viewpoint, from watching what he does rather than literally experiencing it with him, if you will. And that, I think, is the point at which a writer finds it easiest to run afoul of the distinction between realistic and credible.
I happen to write primarily military science fiction, and I make use of a lot of military history as background and source material. One of the things that happens when you do that, though, is that you can find all sorts of “real world” examples of things you cannot convince a good editor to let you do in fiction. For example, the Byzantine Emperor Julian the Apostate really did decide to burn his entire transport fleet in the Persian port of Ctesiphon and then march his entire starving, mutinous army home overland. It was, as they say, a . . . suboptimal choice. In the process, he got dead and his army got destroyed. The problem is that Julian was also a very capable ruler, in very many ways, and quite a successful general. So while a historian can say “Look, I don’t care how capable he was, he really, really did this,” a storyteller can’t. Or, at least, a good storyteller can’t. He may have someone pull a Julian-level mistake, but if he does, and if the person committing the mistake has been demonstrated to be generally capable, and—especially!—if that mistake is what’s going to save the hero’s posterior, then he’s got to explain to the reader how that theoretically capable character came to be that far off his game that day. Otherwise, the decision isn’t going to be credible to the reader, no matter how thoroughly the storyteller can demonstrate its realism by pointing to actual history.
Another example. My wife, Sharon, many years ago, was given a piece of fan fiction and asked to comment on it. In terms of writing style, word choice, ability to describe scenes, and all of that sort of thing, it wasn’t half bad. But she had a problem with the villain and his henchmen’s relations with him. The villain was a thoroughly bad apple. He was vicious, vile, ambitious, ruthless, sadistic, unscrupulous, and totally unburdened by any moral principles whatsoever. He capriciously killed people who irritated him, he engaged in widespread atrocities, and (on a more personal level) he even raped the wife of his senior, most critical subordinate.
Sharon had two questions. The first was why did he do all of this? What motivated him to be so thoroughly vile, sadistic, and generally rotten? The mere fact that he wanted power didn’t explain why he acted as he acted in pursuit of that power. There could have been many reasons, of course, including his own earlier life experience (for example, the historical Vlad Tepes had a thoroughly unhappy childhood), but there was no explanation of what those reasons could have been. And when she asked the author why he acted that way, why he’d chosen that particular path to power, the response was “Because he’s the bad guy.”
That answer creates all sorts of problems on its own, but it actually pales compared to Sharon’s second question. If the villain is going to do all of these terrible, dreadful things, including raping his senior lieutenant’s wife, why are his henchmen his henchmen? Why are they loyal to him? Why doesn’t one of them simply shoot him in the back and be done with it? And the response she got to that question—”Because he’s charismatic”—didn’t really cut the mustard. Even readers who might have found the villain’s actions credible without an explanation of what had twisted and broken him into someone who could have committed them in the first place would have found it extraordinarily difficult to accept the loyalty of his subordinates without one heck of a lot of explanation on the writer’s part. It simply isn’t credible.
The piece of writing in question was fan fiction, written by a fairly young writer (indeed, Sharon was probably in her 20s herself when she encountered it, and she was older than the writer then), but it presents a wonderful example of what is and is not credible characterization. Mind you, there are all sorts of other mistakes one can make, but this one—this kind of mistake—is a fundamental, fatal flaw. To make a story work, the reader has got to care about the characters. He may love them, he may loathe them; he may want them to triumph over their enemies, or he may want their evil plans to be foiled; he may think they’re smart as whips, or some of the stupidest people he’s ever met. In the end, though, he has to care about them, and for that to happen he has to be able to both understand their motivations and find those motivations believable. Credible. Has to understand how they “tick.”
No matter how fantastical the setting, how bizarre the technology (or the magic), the characters have to be credible. If they aren’t, the writer might as well hang it up.