The V-Word

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.

Jim says,

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.

Rory the Nurse

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 the Badass

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?

Baby-Killers Anonymous?

My name is Kristin, and I am a baby-killer. (Hi, Kristin…)

Okay, I realize that the title makes me sound like a whacked-out abortion doctor or a right-winger accusing myself of doing Bad Things, but I’m actually talking about fictional babies.

Today, after a cup of tea, about a million repeats of a sappy song, and a lot of soul-searching, I decided that a main character’s sick baby should die. This is my first time killing a character in this book. I have done some Bad Things to my characters otherwise, but this is the first time I’ve committed murder, and it’s definitely the first time I’ve killed an innocent six-month-old. (For those of you who will someday read my book, ha ha, I apologize for the spoiler.)

I decided to do it for several reasons. One, if the baby recovers, the main character might not have the will to do what she’s about to do. Two, it’ll allow me to set up some nice parallels from her earlier chapters. Yes, I kill babies for the sake of my art. Three, well, I blame Jacqueline Carey. She gives a piece of advice for aspiring writers that has stuck with me for a good five years:

Create characters and break their hearts.

And that’s what I’m doing. This character—her name is Constance, by the way—will be stronger for surviving this. The baby’s death will push her husband, a villain of sorts, over the edge and will help explain the bad choices he’s about to make.

I suppose it’s a little ridiculous to feel guilt over killing people I made up, but whenever I think of another character slated to die, I feel sad for him. In this case, I feel especially sad because this poor baby will have had no role but shaping his mother’s character. These people die so that the people around them–the main characters–can react and develop another facet.

Call me crazy, I guess, but it’s a bummer to have to kill someone you’ve spent time with every day for the past three years, even if that person is just a figment of your imagination.

But if anyone asks,  the song made me do it. And Jacqueline Carey. But I stand by my choice.