free the pen, a blog for writers

October 11, 2011

Are Your Characters Realistic?

Filed under: writing techniques — freethepen @ 4:42 pm

This might seem as if I’m stating the obvious, but your characters and the situations you put them in MUST be realistic. I’ve edited several manuscripts in which scenes and the response of characters were off track. I’ll share some of them with you and let you decide.

In one manuscript a young female scientist was assaulted by one of her co-workers with whom she was engaged in a short romantic relationship. The rape scene was written in excruciatingly realistic details. They struggled by the fire as she tried to break up with him and ward off his sexual advances. The struggle got violent. He took a knife and sliced open her cheek, ripped her clothing. There was blood everywhere. Afterwards he fled from the home and the woman got up, drove to her friend’s home, sat and drank a cup of tea while trying to decide whether to report her co-worker. Okay, what is wrong with this picture? Would you sit and have a cup of tea with a woman whose face was bleeding and whose clothes were torn who had just been raped? Would you not call the police, get her to the hospital, give her clean clothes? None of the conversation or action went to anything along those lines. What would you do if you had been raped and cut? What would you do if you opened the door and saw your friend’s face open and bleeding with torn clothing?

In another manuscript an alcoholic mother verbally abused her teenage daughter, denied her basic needs and slept with any man she met often with the teen in view of it all. But the author made references to the mother as a kind and caring mother. I know alcoholics can be Dr. Jeckyls and Mr. Hydes but show that discrepancy through the mother’s behavior, not the author’s description or commentary. In discussing these contradictions in the manuscript with the author, she told me she was trying to resolve conflicts she had with her own alcoholic mother. The author used her manuscript, which was a novel, as a way to proclaim her own love for her mother in spite of the pain inflicted on her. That’s okay to do, but write it as a memoir if that’s your plan. Work it out in a venue that makes it realistic and seduces the compassion of the reader.
Does this make sense to you?

A book I read years ago described a female character and her relationship to a man she met. The author revealed the woman’s internal thoughts about that man as nontrusting but her behavior continued throughout the story as loving and desirous of a relationship with him. I kept waiting for an explanation of this discrepancy. Unless the story is about a woman struggling to keep herself safe from a sociopath, this dynamic was unrealistic. There was no mention of the woman having a mental health disorder either. Something to substantiate the actions of the woman in line with her thoughts and fears was missing. Perhaps if the author didn’t describe in acute detail the thoughts of the woman, her desires for the man would have made sense. As it was written, this woman’s behavior made no sense.

Examine your characters and the scenes they are in. Read them to several people and ask if the character and the scenes of events that follow are realistic.

When I wrote Kate’s Way www.createspace.com/3498926 I had to make sure that the character Joker, a schizophrenic, was realistic in his behavior as well as the inpatient unit in which he was placed. Luckily, being a social worker and having worked with that mental health center, I had facts to draw upon. Even so, I had therapist friends read it just in case I missed something while I was working on the overall plot. Details need to be realistic.

Until next time,
keep it real,
Jan

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