Making Our Characters’ Crazy Actions Believable

Have you ever received the following critique?

“I just don’t believe [character] would do that.”

I know I have! (Actually, just this week on my WIP :)). And I’ve said it myself, too.

It’s not about a character doing a crazy thing. I’m fine with that–as long as the writer makes me believe they would do that crazy thing. For example, I read an adult book last week in which a character did something she couldn’t possibly hope to get away with. I kept thinking it was a train wreck waiting to happen, and yet the author set it up so well I believed the character would do it no matter the consequences, and I also believed the resolution.

That got me to thinking about how we, as writers, are held to a higher standard than reality when it comes to suspending disbelief. Think about it. Just because someone has done the exact same thing as your character in real life doesn’t mean anyone will believe it in your story–because we’re not inside the real person’s head.

People do crazy things all the time in real life, but even if it’s a close friend who seemingly acts out of character, we’re still on the outside looking in. We might think something came out of nowhere in real life, but instead of knowing what that person was thinking, we’re wondering what they were thinking. We may never understand why a nice young bride pushed her husband off a cliff or why that  grounded Nickelodeon star is suddenly off her rocker. But if we’re writing a novel about that young bride or Nickelodeon star, we’d better know every thought and action that led to such a drastic outward change.

It’s our job to put readers inside characters’ heads. We’re not just watching what they say or do from the outside. We’re on the inside, experiencing their thoughts, emotions, and internal reactions, and that opens us up to comments like:

  • “This came out of nowhere.”
  • “She’s never even thought about this. Why would she do that now?”
  • “This is completely at odds with his reaction earlier.”

As writers, we can’t get away with a character doing a 180 without a reason. Readers will check out if they don’t believe it. We have to lay the necessary groundwork and ensure our characterization is consistent. If a character is going to do something crazy, we have to make sure we’ve established the circumstances and the character’s personality well enough for readers to believe they will do that crazy thing.

Fortunately, believability is something we can catch and fix, most easily by soliciting critiques. I think it’s great when someone gives me these kinds of comments, because then I know what I have to go back and shore up. You don’t believe this is the only option for my character? Let me go complicate things further for her :).

How do you go about making sure your characters’ crazy actions are believable? Any tips?

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About Michelle I. Mason

I'm a full-time writer, focusing mainly on middle grade and young adult fiction with some freelance PR writing and editing on the side. I'm also a wife, mom, Christian, violinist, avid reader and St. Louis Cardinals fan. And I watch way too much TV.
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