I have some doubts. Please answer these questions honestly:
Was your father a “bagman”, delivering cash payoffs on the teeming and corrupt waterfront of New York City in the 1940’s?
Did your mother hunt down her kidnapper, who escaped from prison, before he could find and kidnap you?
Was someone in your Shaker Heights extended family an arsonist, and everyone else harboring a dark secret?
No, I didn’t think so. Things like those don’t happen to most of us. They happen in novels*, though, and we’re glad when they do. We’re entertained. We buy into those preposterous plots. We voluntarily suspend our disbelief and happily accept the actions of a bunch of characters who haul off and do things we would never do.
But wait…I object. We have so often invoked the “willing suspension of disbelief” that we accept it as a given. Of course readers will buy into whatever is happening in your paranormal romance with its shape-shifting hero! Of course readers will believe that your desperate-to-be-a-mom heroine bought a baby in a shady adoption!
Of course! You made it up! It’s a story! Everyone knows that. It couldn’t have happened and for that reason we’re entirely willing to believe that it could. Right? Um, wait a minute. Think about that. It doesn’t make sense. That’s saying that readers buy into preposterous plots precisely because they are preposterous. That’s relying on readers to proclaim, sure, give me characters who act in ways that no rational, law-abiding, well-adjusted citizen would act. Bring it on. The less I believe in your protagonist, the more I will be eager to see what insane thing he or she will do.
That isn’t true. It can’t be. The suspension of disbelief is not willing. Readers objections must be overcome. What is preposterous must become plausible. When human beings act outside the boundaries of family, community, law and reason, there has to be a reason that we believe that they will.
Causing readers to suspend disbelief starts with introducing a story world that feels real. The key to that is details. My mother’s kitchen is one thing. To you that probably doesn’t feel real. However, you might believe it more if I describe it like this: My mother’s kitchen with its gingham curtains, praying angel salt-and-pepper shakers, misshapen paper napkin holder made by me in seventh grade shop class, and shiny aluminum bread box. That’s more likely a kitchen you can believe in. That’s because you can see it. It’s humble and recognizable. It’s the “ordinary world” from which an adventurous protagonist will depart.
The preposterous events of a story aren’t automatically embraced by readers either. They key to that is admitting to readers, yeah, actually things like this don’t happen most of the time. This time is an exception, though, and here’s why…
Next, what causes the crazy, contrary-to-custom actions of protagonists—who are otherwise presented as smart and productive members of society—to become believable? You might think that the key to that is manipulating circumstances such that a protagonist has no other choice. Make your character boxed in, alone, disbelieved, on the run, or in any other way forced to go outside the boundaries and norms of their world, and you’re good. Right? Under extreme circumstances any of us would do extreme things, wouldn’t we?
I object. No, we wouldn’t. Empirically, we don’t. We don’t investigate murders on our own. We don’t take strangers into our homes on slight pretexts. We don’t harbor horrible secrets for thirty years. Instead, we call the cops, run background checks and talk to therapists. Traumatized people, especially, do not keep their traumas a secret. Your pre-therapy girlfriend who was sexually abused by her uncle tells you about it within twenty-four hours and emotionally makes you, the proxy, pay for it for the next four years. The homeless opiate addicts in my neighborhood are in distress, indeed, but camp out in pairs. We humans are rational, careful, self-preserving, and do not stay isolated but seek to share our miseries (and joys) with others.
So, how do the unlikely actions of protagonists become believable? That happens when we believe not in the circumstances but in the people. I don’t mean making protagonists crazy enough to act crazy, though that is possible and sometimes fun. I mean making them protagonists whose inner lives and narrative voices are open to us.
When characters disclose their feelings to us and invite us into their worlds, we follow. When we also like them, we give them the benefit of the doubt. When in addition we admire them, we cheer them on regardless of their choices. That is especially true when they are doing crazy things for the right reasons or, even better, because they are upholding a principle.
Okay, let’s make this practical. Here are some questions to answer. The first few are for you; the others are for your protagonist.
Apart from what makes your story world a place where extraordinary things can happen, what first makes it ordinary? What is normal about people? What is routine about the place? What in this world might make it feel, to us, like home? What in this world are things that would make us want to pack up and move there?
The extraordinary thing that happens in this story…sorry, we aren’t buying it. In the real world, many factors would keep it from happening. How in your story do those factors—this one time—fail to prevent it from happening?
For your protagonist:
Protagonist, what do you care about? What motivates you not to help others, but to pursue what makes you happy and fulfilled? Whom do you love to hang with? What do you love to do? What do you remind yourself when you feel down? Who inspires you and makes you a better person?
Protagonist, there’s something big you must do in this story…but why can’t someone else do it? Aren’t there others who are more capable, better equipped, more expert and simply better at it than you? Why you?
Protagonist, if you feel singularly charged with making things come out right, what makes you think you are right in the first place?
I object, but what I would like to feel in reading your novel is that my objections are swept away, my heart belongs to your protagonist, and that when your protagonist does crazy things they are crazy-good, crazy-wonderful, crazy like I would like to be. When your story world becomes mine, your unlikely plot becomes inevitable, and when your hero or heroine becomes my proxy—because they are true-hearted—then guess what? I’ll shut up and believe.
What objections might readers have to what happens in your story and to what your protagonist does? How will you overcome those objections?
(*The bed stand novels the premises of which I cited: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.)