I’m talking about verisimilitude. What did you think I meant, you big weirdo?
Yesterday we talked about what makes a good character according to the Gospel of Jim. We skimmed verisimilitude, though, because this one is tough.
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 consistant and believeable manner. (*kaffkaff*JAR-JAR*kaffkaff*)
When you are writing your characters, it is absolutely critical that you convey to the reader the sense that your character is a whole, full person with his own life outside the purview of this particular story. This is a task that will take a little bit of time, as your reader follows your character around and sees what is in his world.
So this is part of what I meant when I discussed world-building. People say the devil is in the details, but for a writer, the world is in the details. You have to create a character who exists and has existed in the world you’ve built: your protagonist will have a history in this world, and she won’t bat an eye at the firebats that populate the trees in her backyard. While you may want to describe the firebats in great detail, down to their glowing red ember-eyes, resist that temptation. The more you explain, the more it sounds like you’re trying to convince yourself.
Jim goes on to say that the majority of verisimilitude-creation gets done in scene sequels.
The single most important technique for doing that is through showing your character’s: 1. EMOTIONS 2. REACTIONS and 3. DECISIONS. When something happens in your story, a character with a decent V-factor will react to it. The reader will see his emotional reaction played out, will gain a sense of the logic of a question or problem, and will recognize that the character took a believeable, appropriate course of action in response.
Characters must make rational decisions, and those decisions will be informed as much by their history in your world as by the character’s individual traits. A woman raised in a society that oppresses women will not rebel against that society without some angst and fear about bucking her heritage. Even if she’s a fiesty chick, she’ll still feel some trepidation for going against her upbringing.
Verisimilitude, exaggeration, and exotic position do overlap and can create some friction. A woman raised in that misogynistic society who does not rebel won’t be interesting to read about. To create an interesting character, you need to set her apart by giving her the desire for change and the ability to make a change.
Let’s get more specific. Do you watch Doctor Who? If you don’t, you should. It’s a joy to watch, especially if you enjoy fantasy. Anyway, the Doctor has a variety of companions who tag along on his adventures and act as the viewer’s surrogate, giving us someone with whom we can identify. Rose Tyler is a well-loved companion who may lack a bit on the verisimilitude side, while Rory Williams is a more ho-hum companion who has a high V-factor.
Rory reacts like most of us would: he’s terrified, he bumbles, he’s unsure. A normal person put onto the TARDIS and dealing with scary aliens who erase your memory would probably react similarly. Unfortunately, Rory’s not much fun to watch because he’s too much like us. Viewers and readers like to watch someone special. Otherwise we’d just play The Sims all day instead of reading or watching fantasy.
Rose, on the other hand, takes it all in stride. She’ll reason with a Dalek and hug a crying alien. A normal person probably wouldn’t do that. Rose has the V-factor, though, because she’s a normal girl working in a shop and living with her mother. She’s saved from wild improbability by her basic normality. I suspect she’s such a popular companion because the writers struck the perfect balance of verisimilitude, exaggeration, and exotic position.
That’s the trick. You have to balance reality with fantasy. If you play up one of the factors that go into building a character, you’ll push that character too far in another direction.
How do you give your characters verisimilitude? Can you think of some popular unbelievable characters?