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How to Make Your Characters' Actions Appear 'Real'

Updated on July 18, 2011


Many a good novel or story has lost the reader’s interest when the character did something implausible, or even impossible. In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown has his inexhaustible hero Professor Robert Langdon woken up half way through the night then chased by villains across all Europe. Yet 24 hours later he is still cracking codes with the genius of a TV quiz star. Any normal person would be in a coma.

This might be a way to win sales, but not your readers’ respect.

If you want your character to do something unusual, do it yourself. Otherwise, you will never know if it is humanly possible - at least, the way you describe it. You will also be able to convey - convincingly - how the experience looks, feels, hears, smells or tastes to your character. True, you might not wish, personally, to flee a drug-crazed axman or abseil one-handed down the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai. But if it’s do-able, do it.

When I wanted my character to rescue a heron snarled high in an ancient elm, I scaled my plum tree. After ten feet, my hair was thick with dust, leaves, and insects. (I had never realised how dusty tree bark can become in dry weather.) I had become massively perforated like St Bartholomew with little twigs and my trousers were green-grimed with mould.

Of course, I then got stuck. (Branches are never as conveniently close to hand in real life as they are in fiction.) My wife had to rescue me with a ladder.

On another occasion, I needed a thief to climb an old staircase with a lantern in his hand. So I did it. I found it was necessary to step on the inside of the stairwell to avoid telltale creaking noises and to breathe very slowly (ditto). I also had to tread on the balls of my feet (ditto) and balance myself on the banister by my left elbow. (I didn’t want to leave finger marks.)

I realised that, if a detective finds a clear full footstep on a dusty stair, it has probably been put there deliberately.

All these details found their way into my story.

Walk your talk

When historical novelist Elizabeth Chadwick sets her stories in medieval castles, she visits them - with camera, notebook and tape measure in hand. If she tells you that her hero in 1395 wriggled out of a kitchen window of Ludlow Castle that was 15 inches wide, 16 feet above the courtyard and ten paces from the main gate, you can trust her. She’s measured it.

That’s one reason she has a loyal readership. Apparently, some readers even make a point of visiting the locations of her novels to check her measurements!

Don’t just imagine it. Do it. Walk your story, so far as sanity permits. And readers will believe you - and the story.

For a 14-part mini-course in story writing go to:

See also... Tested Ways to Beat Writers' Block. Click here.


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