Sample scenario: Toyoshi’s voice came raggedly over the phone. “Riyoko is in trouble. She’s been casting spells at midnight to call forth a Wretched Demon and I’m pretty sure it’s working. One more spell and her soul will be completely subsumed by the demon!”
“It’s 11:30 right now,” gasped Yuki.
“Yeah. She’ll probably cast another spell tonight. In just half an hour!”
“We’d better check on her first thing in the morning,” said Yuki. “Goodnight.”
What’s wrong with this picture? What about poor Riyoko? What about the demon? These reactions are out of keeping with the emotional content of the scene. Riyoko is in danger of being taken over by a demon and her friends are worried … about getting a good night’s sleep.
It can also go the other way—your heroine makes a face in the course of a dialogue and her best friend gasps and wonders what horrible secret her friend is keeping from her.
Will the reader continue to trust a writer whose characters’ reactions tell them nothing about the real gravity of a situation?
The answer is “no”. Even if the reader doesn’t consciously pick up on the unevenness of the character’s reactions, it will affect the way he responds to the story.
In the final analysis, such situations as the one raised in my sample scenario above (which was actually in a novel I adapted to English) cause the reader to wonder if he’s missed something.
When characters react in ways that seem peculiar to the reader, they first respond with trust: you’re the expert and they trust that you’re dropping a clue or setting up a situation that will bear fruit later. Or they might believe you’ve just told them something important about these characters or the world they live in. This, in turn, changes the way they respond to the rest of the story.
Now, if the unwitting change of context you caused fails to bear fruit (either because Riyo was really in danger and her friends just didn’t act or because she wasn’t in danger as advertised) the reader loses the trust—they no longer believe in your fictional world or in you.
Mainstream writer Anna Quindlen once said that when it comes to writing fiction, reality is in the dishes. This means simply that if you get the little human details right—the way the characters act and react, for example—the reader will be willing to suspend disbelief in just about anything else you care to tell them.
Exercise: Rewrite the Wretched Demon scene so that the reactions of the characters match the seriousness of the threat. You can change the threat or the reaction—the choice is yours.